UK Liberty

Watching you on public transport

Posted in database state, politicians on liberty, surveillance society by ukliberty on March 16, 2008

The Observer:

Millions of commuters could have their private movements around cities secretly monitored under new counter-terrorism powers being sought by the security services.

Records of journeys made by people using smart cards that allow 17 million Britons to travel by underground, bus and train with a single swipe at the ticket barrier are among a welter of private information held by the state to which MI5 and police counter-terrorism officers want access in order to help identify patterns of suspicious behaviour.

One solution being debated in Whitehall is an unprecedented unlocking of data held by public bodies, such as the Oyster card records maintained by Transport for London and smart cards soon to be introduced in other cities in the UK, for use in the war against terror. The Office of the Information Commissioner, the watchdog governing data privacy, confirmed last night that it had discussed the issue with government but declined to give details, citing issues of national security.

Currently the security services can demand the Oyster records of specific individuals under investigation to establish where they have been, but cannot trawl the whole database. But supporters of calls for more sharing of data argue that apparently trivial snippets – like the journeys an individual makes around the capital – could become important pieces of the jigsaw when fitted into a pattern of other publicly held information on an individual’s movements, habits, education and other personal details. That could lead, they argue, to the unmasking of otherwise undetected suspects.

Critics, however, fear a shift towards US-style ‘data mining’, a controversial technique using powerful computers to sift and scan millions of pieces of data, seeking patterns of behaviour which match the known profiles of terrorist suspects. They argue that it is unfair for millions of innocent people to have their privacy invaded on the off-chance of finding a handful of bad apples.

‘It’s looking for a needle in a haystack, and we all make up the haystack,’ said former Labour minister Michael Meacher, who has a close interest in data sharing. ‘Whether all our details have to be reviewed because there is one needle among us – I don’t think the case is made.’

Jago Russell, policy officer at the campaign group Liberty, said technological advances had made ‘mass computerised fishing expeditions’ easier to undertake, but they offered no easy answers. ‘The problem is what do you do once you identify somebody who has a profile that suggests suspicions,’ he said. ‘Once the security services have identified somebody who fits a pattern, it creates an inevitable pressure to impose restrictions.’

Individuals wrongly identified as suspicious might lose high-security jobs, or have their immigration status brought into doubt, he said. Ministers are also understood to share concerns over civil liberties, following public opposition to ID cards, and the debate is so sensitive that it may not even form part of Brown’s published strategy.

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