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Lords to probe surveillance society

The House of Lords will investigate whether the UK's 'surveillance society' is unconstitutional. The Lords' Constitution Committee has asked for evidence in an investigation it has launched into surveillance in the UK.30 Apr 2007

"The inquiry, which is set against a backdrop of increased use of CCTV, the creation of the national DNA database, the new NHS Spine and the proposals for ID cards, will seek to find out if increased surveillance and data collection by the state have fundamentally altered the way it relates to its citizens," said the Committee's announcement.

In 2004, Information Commissioner Richard Thomas warned that Britain was in danger of sleepwalking into a surveillance society. In November 2006 he said in a statement, "Today I fear that we are in fact waking up to a surveillance society that is already all around us."

With high numbers of closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras per head of population, ID cards and digital passports on their way and the creation of new databases such as that of the NHS, people living in the UK are becoming increasingly monitored.

The Committee has indicated the questions that it wants answered in its investigation. "What forms of surveillance and data collection might be considered constitutionally proper or improper? Is there a line that should not be crossed? How could it be identified?," it said.

The investigation will look at what effect all this data collection has on the privacy and liberty of people in the UK, and examine whether or not the Data Protection Act represents adequate protection for citizens.

"The nature and extent of surveillance and data collection have changed dramatically in recent years," said Lord Holme of Cheltenham, Chairman of the Constitution Committee. "We now have close to 4.2 million CCTV cameras in the UK and with the introduction of the NHS Spine and the ID card database the government will hold more information about us than ever before."

The investigation has been launched because Committee members believe that the growing trend toward surveillance has not been adequately analysed by people with citizens' interests at heart, or with an eye on the effect it has on politics.

“The broad constitutional implications of these changes have not thus far been sufficiently closely scrutinised," said Holme. "As a Committee we hope to get to the bottom of how these changes are altering the relationship between individuals and the State, and to ascertain whether necessary protection is in place.”