Richard Thomas is the Information Commissioner. There is a splash in todays Times about his views on government proposals for the introduction of Identity Cards in the UK. Below is the critical article about it all by Thomas, followed by a Times Leader.

I had actually taken part in the Home Office trial, last month. I think it is still taking place. I made an earlier entry on my blog about this at:

http://tash_lodge.blogspot.com/2004_06_27_tash_lodge_archive.html#108854890794752745

I find all this very scarey. Not because of my criminal activities! but I just think that these tools are exessive and lay the foundation stone for a surveillance society and police state. You think I exaggerate? We’ll see.

Watching out: A need for balance as Whitehall seeks more information

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,542-1218045,00.html

Richard Thomas has the slightly Orwellian title of Information Commissioner. It is plain from his interview in The Times today, however, that his primary objective is preventing the emergence of a Big Brother society, not promoting one. In candid terms he sets out his fears that Whitehall may acquire too much data about citizens and that this could be a threat to their liberty. He hints at a comparison with Eastern Europe but, sensibly, draws back from an analogy that might smack, as he puts it, of paranoia language. That he could discuss the matter in anything approaching such a vocabulary will, nonetheless, be seized upon by those concerned with civil liberties.

There are three proposed measures which Mr Thomas regards as potentially dubious. These are David Blunkett’s national identity card scheme, a separate population register planned by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the suggestion that a detailed database be compiled of every child from birth to the age of 18. While it is not being suggested that these moves are different strands of a collective plot, the cumulative impact, the Information Commissioner implies, will be the accumulation of a large and intrusive amount of material that, if precedent is any guide, will ultimately be exploited by more departments within Whitehall than is promised at the outset. This is a serious charge from a credible person and ministers should be obliged to respond to it.

The worries highlighted by Mr Thomas are, though, subtly different. There are and will be heated arguments over the principle and the practicality of identity cards. The Information Commissioner does not direct his fire in either of these directions. He instead observes that the rationale for this innovation has never been articulated consistently. He protests that ministers have produced several reasons why they favour this initiative, ranging from terrorism to immigration control to access to benefits and public services. The end result, he says, is an all-singing, all-dancing case for radical reform. But the Home Office would retort that the reason why it has claimed a number of benefits for ID cards is because there is a range of potential advantages.

The issues of the ONS population register and the database in the Children’s Bill are again distinct. The purpose of the ONS project is to create a data bank that will contain a person’s name, addresses, date and place of birth, gender and a unique reference number. The theory is that it will allow people to update their name and address by making one entry rather than having to contact several departments. This is not, on the face of it, an especially sinister move. Indeed, many might be surprised to discover that there is not such a register already.

There is more room for doubt about the child database sought by the Government. This has been promoted as the appropriate response to the failure of agencies to share information properly during the appalling life and death of Victoria Climbie. It is not clear that administrative imperfections, rather than human error of a basic form inside the social services, were really at the root of this tragedy. Ministers will have to provide compelling evidence if the House of Lords, in particular, is not to reject this legislation.

The core point made by the Information Commissioner must be respected. New technology has increased the means by which agencies can keep records on citizens. It is not clear that the Data Protection Act, 1984 is sufficiently rigorous to provide the necessary protection in a wired society. Parliament needs not only to look carefully at the Bills cited by Mr Thomas, but also to reassess the sometimes compelling demands of public policy and individual privacy.

Beware rise of Big Brother state, warns data watchdogBy Richard Ford, Home Correspondent

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/printFriendly/0,,1-2-1218615,00.html

BRITAIN’S information watchdog gives warning today that the country risks “sleepwalking into a surveillance society” because of government plans for identity cards and a population register.

Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, says that there is a growing danger of East German Stasi-style snooping if the State gathers too much information about individual citizens.

He singles out three projects that he believes are of particular concern. They are David Blunkett’s identity card scheme; a separate population register planned by the Office for National Statistics; and proposals for a database of every child from birth to the age of 18.

He says: “My anxiety is that we don’t sleepwalk into a surveillance society where much more information is collected about people, accessible to far more people shared across many more boundaries than British society would feel comfortable with.”

Asked if he thinks there is a risk of this occurring because of the Government’s plans, Mr Thomas tells The Times: “I think there is a danger, yes.” The office of the Information Commissioner is an independent body created by statute and answerable to Parliament.

Mr Thomas, 55, a solicitor, was appointed two years ago after a career in the private, public and voluntary sectors. His job is to promote greater public access to official records while ensuring that the State does not collect more information about citizens than is necessary.

Mr Thomas highlights his concerns by pointing to the former communist regimes in Eastern Europe and Franco’s Spain which both collected huge amounts of information about citizens. “I don’t want to start talking paranoia language, but data protection has a strong continental European flavour.

“Some of my counterparts in Eastern Europe, in Spain, have experienced in the last century what can happen when government gets too powerful and has too much information on citizens. When everyone knows everything about everybody else and the Government has got massive files, whether manual or computerised.”

The Government’s plans for an identity card include a national register which would include details such as a person’s address, as well as any previous addresses he has lived at and when. The register will also include the fingerprints of every citizen.

Police, the security services, the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise will have access to the register. The Home Secretary will also be able to give any Whitehall department access without the need for a new Act of Parliament.

Mr Thomas says that the implication of gathering so much information and allowing such wide access is much more serious than a debate about plastic cards. “I don’t think people have woken up to what lies behind this,” he says.

“It enables the Government of the day to build up quite a comprehensive picture about many of your activities. My job is to make sure no more information is collected than necessary for any particular purpose.” Although he does not oppose the idea of identity cards, insisting that he cannot be “for or against”, he is critical of the Government’s failure to spell out in a draft Bill the cards’ exact purpose. He says: “The Government has changed its line over the last two or three years as to what the card is intended for. You have to have clarity. Is it for the fight against terrorism? Is it to promote immigration control? Is it to provide access to public benefit and services? Various other reasons have been put forward . . . I don’t think that is acceptable.”

Mr Thomas is also concerned about the long-term effects of other databases proposed by Whitehall. The Citizen’s Information Project, which is planned by the Office for National Statistics and is separate from the identity card register, would create a population database for use by public services. It would contain a person’s name, address, sex, date and place of birth, and a unique reference number. It would allow people to update their name and address across all government departments by making one entry rather than, as now, informing each agency individually.

The Children Bill proposes a database of all children from birth until adulthood. It was put forward after the failure of official agencies to share information in the Victoria Climbie child abuse case. School achievements, medical and social services records and parental marital status could be on the database. The health department is also planning a database detailing treatments and social care for all patients.

Mr Thomas says: “I am not a Luddite. There are reasons why we need to promote better information sharing where children are at risk, but whether the right answer is to create a database of every child in the country should be questioned.”

It is not the first time that warnings have been given about the rise of a Big Brother-style society in Britain. Statistics show that the country now has four million closed-circuit television cameras monitoring the population; there are details of 2.5 million convicted or suspected criminals on DNA databases; police have gathered 5.5 million fingerprints; and London Transport’s Oyster card sends out a signal about an individual’s whereabouts every time it is checked at a station.

Mark Oaten, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said he was concerned about the proliferation of databases: “While the Government can sometimes justify each measure individually, the danger is that we are slipping into a Big Brother society by stealth.”

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