by Phil Hazlewood
Agence France Presse, 2 November 2006
Britain is becoming a "surveillance society," where CCTV cameras, credit card analysis and travel movements are used to track people's lives minute by minute, a report suggested.
The 140-page document, produced by academic group the Surveillance Studies Network, warns that people's lives will be monitored even more in the next decade by the government, the public sector, employers and big business.
Britain is ranked bottom of the democratic Western world and alongside Russia for its record on protecting individual privacy in a table published Thursday by Privacy International, a human rights watchdog.
There are up to 4.2 million CCTV (closed-circuit television) cameras -- about one for every 14 people or nearly 10 percent of those around the world -- with ever-more sophisticated technology.
Every person is caught on camera about 300 times each day.
Despite opposition from civil liberties groups, the government is pushing ahead with plans to introduce biometric identity cards, arguing it will improve internal security and curb illegal immigration.
This week, Prime Minister Tony Blair said he wants to increase the police's DNA database to cover even people released without charge.
As international data protection and privacy commissioners met in London, Britain's information commissioner Richard Thomas said the report was a "clear signal" the country was becoming a surveillance society.
"It's not just cameras in the street and things like that. It's technology monitoring our movements and activities," he told BBC radio.
Using mobile phones, credit cards, the Internet and even driving now left an "electronic footprint," he said, while organisations increasingly shared information.
Thomas -- whose remit is to promote public access to official information and protect personal data -- insisted the authors of the report, which he commissioned, were not scaremongering by painting a "sinister, Orwellian picture."
Instead, it was the start of a necessary debate about what should be the limits of technology, he added.
"We've got to say: 'Where do we want the lines to be drawn? How much do we want to have surveillance changing the nature of society ... ?" he said, accepting some uses may help in issues like counter-terrorism or serious crime.
"We've got to stand back and see where technology is taking us and make sure we are happy."
The report suggests that by 2016 shoppers will be scanned as they enter stores through tags in their clothes, with information matched to details on loyalty cards to recognize shopping habits.
Cars linked to satellite navigation systems will allow police to monitor speeds and journeys more closely, while workers will be subject to biometric and psychometric tests to weed out unsuitable candidates or health risks, it adds.
Care was needed to prevent creating a climate of suspicion and mistrust, it added.
Britain's Department for Constitutional Affairs accepted there was a balance to be struck between sharing information responsibly and respecting citizens' rights.
The Association of Chief Police Officers of England and Wales agreed, saying safeguards existed already against abusing surveillance and its use had to be proportionate.
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