By Tom Whitehead, Home Affairs Editor
12 Nov 2010
Britain is heading for a new surveillance state of unmanned spy drones, GPS tracking of employees and profiling through social networking sites, the information watchdog has warned.
The relentless march of the surveillance society has seen snooping techniques "intensify and expand" at such a pace that regulators are struggling to keep up, according to Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner.
Despite moves by the Coalition Government to row back intrusions of privacy, a new wave of monitoring risks making the spy state greater than ever.
Mr Graham's predecessor warned in 2006 that the UK could be "sleepwalking into a surveillance society" and an updated report for him today said such concerns are "no less cogent" in 2010.
It said that "visual, covert, database and other forms of surveillance have proceeded apace" and that much of it "goes beyond the limits of what is tolerable in a society".
Britons are already the most watched citizens in the democratic world because of an army of surveillance systems including CCTV, cameras that track vehicles, vast Government databases and the sharing of personal data such as air passenger details.
It has led to some surveillance powers being abused for less serious matters such as dog fouling or proving a family was not eligible for a school catchment area.
But advances in technology and communications means members of the public now face the prospect of even greater and more intrusive monitoring, the report said.
It highlights a pilot by Merseyside Police to use unmanned helicopter drones, which has now finished, and that it is "quite probable" they will become more commonplace around the country and will be used during the 2012 Olympics.
It quotes reports that six other police forces are considering pilots but that potential applications could be to monitor minor offences such as fly tipping and waste management.
The report warns: "Drones also present a more pervasive form of surveillance than CCTV because of their mobility.
"They raise significant problems in terms of consent and notice, as they are barely visible from the ground, and yet have the potential to track and film people in real time.
"Issues around proportionality arise when they are following a ‘target’."
Mobile phone technology and CCTV in the workplace also paves the way for employees to be monitored more closely, the report suggests.
It describes a practice in Japan where bosses were able to track the movements of a cleaner by using GPS linked to his mobile phone – technology so sensitive they could even tell if he was scrubbing or sweeping.
Along with concerns that CCTV in offices could be used to watch staff performance rather than detect fraud or dishonesty, the report said both represented "an intensification of surveillance and a diminution of our normal expectations of privacy".
The ability to use personal information in social networking sites to effectively profile people and even predict their political or sexual preferences is also of concern to the watchdog.
It says that "anticipating and controlling new developments is a constant challenge" and that "surveillance cannot be effectively constrained without a more rigorous regime of law, supervision and enforcement".
But it also warns that attempts to curtail the growing trend will face opposition.
"Given the powerful commercial, governmental, and popular forces that brought about an intensification of surveillance in the first place, there may be considerable resistance to giving up the right."
It said that despite the scrapping of ID cards and ContactPoint, the database of every child, and ongoing reviews of CCTV, the DNA database and "there are still many areas where surveillance continues to intensify and expand".
Mr Graham said: "Many of the new laws that come into force every year in the UK have implications for privacy at their heart.
"My concern is that after they are enacted there is no one looking back to see whether they are being used as intended, or whether the new powers were indeed justified in practice"
In his report, which will be presented to the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, he said Government departments should have a legal requirement to scrutinise how the laws are being used in practice.
Sunset clauses, which allow all or part of a law to be terminated after a specific date, should be considered and private firms launching new technologies should consider privacy implications.
Alex Deane, director of Big Brother Watch, said: "Surveillance in Britain has been expanded out of all proportion and it is getting worse.
"Now we face the prospect of improving technology allowing the state to monitor us in every moment of our lives."
A Government spokeswoman said: "The new Government believes there has been too much intrusion into the private lives of people in this country.
"We have put civil liberties at the heart of our policies and our first piece of legislation was to scrap ID cards.
"We are committed to rolling back big government and state intrusion."