Surveillance: Citizens and the State - Constitution Committee Contents

CHAPTER 3: Advantages and disadvantages of surveillance and the use of personal data

68.  The Government told us that:

    "There is a need to gather and access personal information to: support the delivery of personalised and better public services; fight crime and protect public security; reduce the burden on business and the citizen, and tackle social exclusion through early intervention. This processing of personal information is demanded in greater quantity and in quicker time than ever before". (p 316)

69.  The Government's evidence does not of itself explain how the collection of information helps the pursuit of their objectives, or whether existing processing practices are proportionate to those objectives. Surveillance and the use of personal information may lead to a conflict between the interests of the citizen and the goals of the state, and the gathering of personal information has the potential to undermine privacy and limit the freedom of the individual. In this chapter, we consider the advantages and disadvantages of surveillance and the use of personal data in two areas: law enforcement and public safety; and the provision of public services.

Advantages of surveillance and the collection of personal data—Law enforcement and public safety


70.  Protecting the public is a duty of government. According to the Surveillance Studies Network, during the 1990s approximately 78 per cent of the Home Office crime prevention budget was spent on installing CCTV, whilst some £500 million of public money was invested in CCTV in the decade up to 2006.[51] Where previously this money might have been spent on street lighting and supporting neighbourhood crime prevention initiatives, it is now used to maintain and expand the network of police and local authority cameras. It is difficult to determine exactly how many CCTV cameras there are in the UK (Q 44) but recent estimates have put the figure at over 4 million.[52] Most experts appear to agree that the UK leads the world in its use of CCTV.

71.  A number of witnesses referred to public attitudes to CCTV. Councillor Hazel Harding, Leader of Lancashire County Council and Chair of the Local Government Association Safer Communities Board, told us that:

    "CCTV is very popular with law-abiding members of the public who see it as a preventative and feel much safer … CCTV is something that councils are facing demands for day after day from members of the public who think it would actually make them safe and they would feel safer because of it." (Q 771)

72.  We consider public attitudes towards CCTV in more detail in Chapter 8.

73.  A number of witnesses referred to the benefits of CCTV. Hazel Harding told us that:

    "There are some good examples of how CCTV has helped perhaps not always to prevent but certainly to detect crime and as such it has been very useful … In terms of antisocial behaviour, I do not think necessarily that people out on the streets sometimes causing mayhem look at where the cameras are or behave differently because of it, but I do think that it does enable prosecutions and, as such, is very useful." (Q 771)

74.  The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) agreed that "the availability of CCTV images greatly assists in the investigation of crime and disorder", although they added that "the contribution of CCTV images … is not recorded in a systematic manner". (p 43) ACPO gave examples of CCTV's effective use in terrorist trials, tracking suspicious vehicles along with number-plate recognition, and suspicious behaviour in a town centre. (pp 43-44)

75.  Deputy Chief Constable Graeme Gerrard of the Cheshire Constabulary and Chair of ACPO's CCTV Working Group said:

    "When a crime has occurred CCTV is a vital element of the investigative process. It is not an understatement to say now that the first piece of evidence that an investigating officer will go looking for is the CCTV evidence. The first investigative action very often is [to] secure all available CCTV evidence … You only need to watch the television on a daily basis and to read the media on a daily basis to see how many crimes are detected, or certainly the investigation greatly assisted, as a result of CCTV evidence." (Q 146)

76.  He also said:

    "Several years ago London was suffering from a nail bombing campaign by an individual … targeting specific parts of London with his nail bombs and there were extremist groups claiming responsibility for the actions. That event was entirely supported by CCTV evidence in terms of actually detecting that crime. What value do you put on the price of that detection?" (Q 148)

77.  Transport for London (TfL), which uses some 10,000 CCTV cameras in its rail network, stations, roads and buses, argued that:

    "CCTV systems in particular are used successfully by TfL for both transport system management and delivering a safe and secure environment for those who travel … In addition, the CCTV coverage of TfL's network proved invaluable to the police and Security Services in the aftermath of the incidents of 7 and 21 July 2005 … CCTV coverage … remains an essential component of protecting the system from terrorism and providing essential intelligence to the Police and security services". (pp 340-41)

78.  Graeme Gerrard acknowledged that the use of CCTV has limits:

    "The evidence and academic research that I have seen says it is very effective in places like car parks … but in terms of our town centres, where a lot of the behaviour is violent or disorderly … often fuelled by alcohol, people are not thinking rationally, they get angry and the CCTV camera is the last thing they think about and even the presence of police officers does not deter them … In terms of reducing crime there are mixed results … there was some quite good indication that it reduces the public's fear of crime. If you look at where most of the pressure is for CCTV in the community, the vast majority of it comes from the public who actually want it … It is certainly not being driven by the Police Service, it is actually being driven by the local communities." (Q 145)

79.  Professor Clive Norris, Professor of Sociology and Deputy Director of the Centre for Criminological Research at the University of Sheffield, and representative of the Surveillance Studies Network, referred to research that showed that improved street lighting "seemed to be a rather more effective form of prevention" than CCTV. (Q 40) Professor Martyn Thomas, independent consultant and representative of the UK Computing Research Committee (UKCRC), and Dr Ian Forbes, Director of fig one Consultancy, and representative of the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE), also drew attention to several factors that contribute to crime deterrence. (Q 394) Professor Janice Morphet, a former local authority officer and Chief Executive, thought "it would be more worthwhile to have a more integrated approach to thinking about on-street safety, which would include design, CCTV, and the presence of police and other officials." (Q 913)

80.  In an effort to improve the effectiveness of CCTV, the Home Office and ACPO have developed a national strategy to overcome technical, organisational and human problems.[53] Whilst noting the usefulness of research into the prevention and deterrent effects of CCTV, the Home Office and ACPO said that "little formal research has been undertaken to establish the impact that CCTV has on the investigation of crime. Those examining the issue therefore have to rely on limited research and anecdotal evidence provided by operational police officers."[54]

81.  The House of Commons Home Affairs Committee's report recommended that "the Home Office undertake further research to evaluate the effectiveness of camera surveillance as a deterrent to crime before allocating funds or embarking on any major new initiative. The Home Office should ensure that any extension of the use of camera surveillance is justified by evidence of its effectiveness for its intended purpose, and that its function and operation are understood by the public."[55] The Government's response stated that this recommendation was "being addressed through the National CCTV Strategy."[56] There is no reference to the substance of the Home Affairs Committee's recommendation in the strategy document.

82.  We recommend that the Home Office commission an independent appraisal of the existing research evidence on the effectiveness of CCTV in preventing, detecting and investigating crime.

83.  We consider later in the Report how CCTV should be regulated (see paragraphs 213-19).


84.  Personal data in the form of DNA are routinely collected from individuals and crime scenes by the police. Since the establishment of the National DNA Database (NDNAD) in 1995, DNA profiling has increased, with law enforcement agencies using DNA and other forms of "bioinformation" for crime detection, to assist in the investigation and prosecution of criminals, and to help identify deceased persons and body parts. A number of witnesses referred to the advantages of the forensic use of DNA data. We consider this evidence, in the context of the issues associated with DNA collection and profiling, in Chapter 4.


85.  Covert surveillance includes the undisclosed tracking of individuals, interception of the contents of communications, the analysis of "traffic data"--the record of, for example, who telephoned whom and when—and the use of human agents in undercover activities.

86.  Assistant Chief Constable Nick Gargan, the former Chair of the Covert Investigation (Legislation and Guidance) Peer Review Group within ACPO told us that "the use of covert surveillance is indispensable to the Police Service and to our colleagues involved in the fight against all forms of criminality … citizens are very happy to support the development of surveillance and of data acquisition mechanisms that achieve a balance between privacy and safety." (Q 90)


87.  Combating fraud is a law enforcement activity which uses data collection and processing. Evidence from the Government's Fraud Review described a policy development to combat fraud, which would include extensive information sharing and the linkage of databases. Success is already claimed in respect of NHS savings of £189 million in 2005, the National Fraud Initiative's savings of £111 million in 2005-06, and £10 million saved in respect of cheque and plastic card fraud. (p 329)

88.  The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) is authorised to carry out covert or other non-intrusive forms of surveillance. It regards these powers and methods as "fundamental, basic and crucial utensils of any investigative toolbox" in pursuit of, for example, company and insolvency fraud, and suspected fraud of health-related compensation schemes. (pp 324-26) The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) gathers personal data from a range of other departments and local authorities, in part "to prevent and detect fraudulent claims, for example by matching death information from the General Register Office with our customer records". (p 340) Benefit fraud control at the local authority level also involves the matching of personal data files. Professor Morphet described how recent improvements in IT systems had led to data matching being used to identify people committing benefit fraud. (Q 887)

Advantages of surveillance and the collection of personal data—Provision of public services

89.  For the citizen, the potential of being able to obtain public services from central or local government quickly, reliably, and efficiently is justification for electronic government ("e-government"). Through the electronic co-ordination of health and social care, public transport, education and children's services, and recreational facilities, e-government aims to improve the delivery of public services by, for example, providing faster diagnosis and treatment, the monitoring of personal performance and progress, easier payment systems and bookings, and the online provision of targeted information.

90.  The Prime Minister has advocated the advantages of bringing information together to serve citizens better:

91.  Better information management means that citizens can carry out transactions with the state for claiming benefits, paying taxes, applying for licences, registering and revising basic information, and for other purposes through a single window or gateway, either online or in government offices, avoiding the need to provide the same information many times over to separate government departments. Michael Wills MP, Minister of State in the Department of Justice with responsibility for data handling issues, said:

    "We know for example that there is a big problem with the take up of free school meals and a lot of young children are not getting adequate nutrition … The information that would enable us to identify those young children is available to us … That is a good that everybody can subscribe to but it does depend on data sharing to improve that level of take up. Similarly Sir David Varney[58] when he was looking at this quotes an example of a bereaved family who had lost a family member in a road accident. In these tragic circumstances the last thing you want to do is to be badgered with lots of information. I think they had 44 different contacts with the state in different ways and that is unacceptable. These things need to be done but if you could share the data the level of intrusion into a family in grief is minimised." (Q 975)

92.  Through the intensive analysis of large collections of personal data, it is now possible for government to be more "citizen-focussed" and for services to be better tailored to individual needs and circumstances. Professor Morphet told us:

    "Many citizens are not actually receiving their full entitlements. There are just over 50 different kinds of financial benefit that a citizen could be entitled to, and … 80 per cent of the information required for those applications for benefit was the same. The current system would be that a citizen would have to fill in as many forms for these benefits as they thought they were entitled to, but a modernised local government approach would suggest that you collect the information once and, with the citizen's consent, you see if they are entitled to other benefits." (Q 883)

93.  Professor Morphet gave an illustration of how data comparisons across local agencies are used to identify families suffering from a range of related problems, and to ensure that any new initiatives aimed at helping them are accurately targeted:

    "I am thinking of the case of one particular council … that identified that certain families had a cluster of problems when they looked at issues, and compared some information across agencies. These families were clustered on an estate, and there were high levels of truancy, crime, debt, poor health and so on … [The council] have been in and targeted that area for a range of initiatives to improve the situation." (Q 900)

94.  The Department of Communities and Local Government (CLG) outlined benefits of social service information-sharing to the citizen in terms of better assessment of clients' needs and the effective tailoring of services. In addition it claimed that information sharing can help in the design of services and the monitoring of their performance and effectiveness. (pp 326-29) The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) stated that:

    "Better information sharing is crucial to safeguarding children and supporting the drive to personalise learning and to improve service delivery; it also contributes to improvements in efficiency and effectiveness, in reducing burdens on the front line, and in ensuring effective accountability." (p 330)

95.  Evidence on the advantages of data collection and sharing that we received from some central government departments via the Ministry of Justice constituted policy aspirations with little comment on outcomes. (pp 323-41)


96.  The collection and processing of data on sections of the population is important to the development of future public policies. Predictive and proactive strategies based on the analysis of personal data are, controversially, becoming more important in relation to the provision of children's services. Dr Eileen Munro, Reader in Social Policy, London School of Economics (LSE), told us that the desire "to monitor and ensure all children are reaching some standard of experience is very recent." (Q 813)

97.  Dr Christopher Hall and his colleagues in the e-Assessment in Child Welfare research project, University of Huddersfield, explained:

98.  These programmes of Transformational Government emphasise the importance of sharing information contained in different departmental or agency "silos", using technology to enable better and novel forms of service provision, and the delivery of more effective policy outcomes.[60] We discuss this more fully in Chapter 6.

Disadvantages of surveillance and the collection of personal data

99.  Our attention was also drawn to the potential costs and dangers of surveillance and the collection of personal data. As we have already noted, the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, has stated that there is a danger that Britain is sleepwalking into a "surveillance society", in which the tools of mass surveillance have become ubiquitous and individual privacy a thing of the past.[61] Although none of the witnesses we heard from went so far as to suggest that we are living in an Orwellian society—or that one is just around the corner—many endorsed the Commissioner's concerns and argued that the steady expansion in the surveillance apparatus of the state and private sector had already transformed the everyday lives of millions of people, and not always for the better. Privacy, trust in the state, and the security of our personal information were all now at risk owing to the growth in surveillance, and there was a pressing need to take the potential pitfalls of surveillance seriously. (Professor Norris, Q 54; Professor Graham Greenleaf, Q 77; Professor Peter Hutton, Q 169)


100.  In the opinion of many of our witnesses, the widespread use of surveillance technology poses a significant threat to personal privacy and individual freedom. Liberty argued that the shift towards mass surveillance technology has the potential to affect large sections of the public, and to render privacy, and the personal autonomy that flows from it, vulnerable: "It is not only those that have something to hide that have something to fear, something to protect." (p 103)

101.  This point was also made by Professor Ian Loader, Director of the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford, who drew particular attention to the threat to privacy from state surveillance:

102.  The widespread use of surveillance may undermine the value of privacy as a public good. JUSTICE argued that it is important to recognise the public dimension of privacy, and to acknowledge its role in the development and operation of a range of social relationships. (p 109)

103.  As surveillance is potentially a threat to privacy, we recommend that before public or private sector organisations adopt any new surveillance or personal data processing system, they should first consider the likely effect on individual privacy.


104.  We took note of evidence that the growing spread of surveillance was slowly transforming our constitutional landscape. Although there is nothing inherently unconstitutional in the use of surveillance by the state, there is nonetheless a danger that it may disturb some of the presumptions and relationships that underpin the relationship between the individual and the state. As Dr David Murakami Wood, Lecturer at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, and representative of the Surveillance Studies Network, observed:

105.  Many witnesses suggested that surveillance changes the nature of the relationship between the individual and the state. According to NO2ID, our legal system is based on direct relationships between individuals and institutions, with legal rules being aimed at answering the question, "Does this person have this right in these circumstances?" However, they argued, as a result of increasing levels of routine surveillance, and particularly database surveillance, "the growing culture of state identification and record keeping is eroding that fundamental assumption of law." (p 426)

106.  NO2ID suggested that increased emphasis on records and centralised databases undermines the presumption of innocence by making anyone who is not willing to provide requested information to government a target of suspicion. They also argued that the growing expectation that individuals are responsible for ensuring that their data are up to date creates a new and increasingly onerous set of personal obligations:

    "The idea of continuous self-exculpation is aligned with the pragmatic consequence of surveillance mechanisms. The records must be complete. Therefore they must be kept up to date. Therefore the citizen acquires new and onerous obligations backed by penalties for non-compliance, to report on himself." (p 428)

107.  Professor Norris agreed that by placing increasing emphasis on surveillance and the collection of data, government was sending a clear message to members of the public:

    "Mass surveillance promotes the view … that everybody is untrustworthy. If we are gathering data on people all the time on the basis that they may do something wrong, this is promoting a view that as citizens we cannot be trusted". (Q 54)

108.  We also heard evidence that loss of trust in the state could have serious consequences for the functioning of government. In many instances, trust in the state is an essential prerequisite for compliance with the law, and as a result anything that undermines trust has the potential to generate resistance and lead to the creation of an antagonistic relationship between the individual and the state. According to Dawn Oliver, Emeritus Professor of Constitutional Law, University College London:

    "For me a major problem is the risk that individuals will feel that they cannot trust the state with the information that it has about them and that might make them feel insecure and unwilling to co-operate with the state, unwilling to provide information … because they are concerned it might be either lost or get into hands they do not want the information to get into. For me the main thing is this question of security, trust and co-operation." (Q 742)

109.  In similar vein, Professor Bert-Jaap Koops, Professor of Law and Technology at Tilburg University Institute for Law, Technology and Society (TILT), suggested that the growing use of surveillance technology by the Government and the expansion in investigatory powers was part of a "battle of arms between police and criminals with technology as a primary instrument." One consequence is that the citizen is subject to increasing levels of surveillance. (p 172)

110.  Before introducing any new surveillance measure, the Government should endeavour to establish its likely effect on public trust and the consequences for public compliance. This task could be undertaken by an independent review body or non-governmental organisation, possibly in conjunction with the Information Commissioner's Office.


111.  We also took evidence about the social effects of surveillance. The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) drew attention to the potential for discrimination. The ICO focussed on plans by the Government to identify and monitor children:

112.  The Information Commissioner argued that "the more you use profiling the more you run the risk of … greater stigmatisation, more discrimination, more social exclusion and a society of greater suspicion where trust is reduced." (Q 4) Professor Norris suggested that surveillance encourages discrimination because it leads to the Government and private organisations shifting their focus from a concern for the individual to a desire to categorise and manage populations. (QQ 54, 55) He added:

    "[The] problem is that once you are into a surveillance solution, it becomes in a sense expansionary to a huge degree. If you see that information is what you need to solve a problem but you do not quite know what that problem is and you do not know what future events you are going to be responding to, the temptation is to collect all information about all people". (Q 54)

113.  Professor Norris contended that existing surveillance systems and databases may reflect long-standing institutional biases and provide a basis for discrimination based on factors such as race:

    "The over-representation of black men in the DNA Register is a serious issue and cause for concern and part of that over-representation is because they are more likely to be arrested by the police … So, we have a system that is disproportionately including someone on a register which will affect their life chances in ways in the future which is based on forms of differentiation". (Q 55)


114.  The amount of personal information held by the state and the private sector is of concern because of its potential implications for personal security. A number of witnesses noted that the potential consequences of data loss or misuse have grown. As we noted in Box One, over the past two years, a succession of data losses by various government agencies have occurred. The UKCRC said that:

115.  The routine collection and storage of personal data makes individuals vulnerable to criminal organisations stealing and misusing their information. The ICO told us that there is a "thriving black market in personal details" and that the accidental loss of personal data by government and private organisations puts individuals at serious risk of identity fraud. (p 3)

116.  The UKCRC made specific recommendations to improve data security, and thus reduce the risks associated with growing levels of state and private surveillance. They suggested that organisations that are legally required to retain personal data should be required to encrypt the data so as to prevent unauthorised access and mitigate the effects of any loss. (p 147)

117.  We welcome the UK Computing Research Committee's suggestion that the encryption of personal data should be mandatory in some circumstances. Organisations should avoid connecting to the internet computers which contain large amounts of personal information. We recommend that the Government introduce appropriate regulations.

A Report on the Surveillance Society¸ op. cit., para 9.5.3. Back

52   ibid.¸ para 9.5.2 Back

53   National CCTV Strategy, op. cit. October 2007.  Back

54   ibid., section 5.1. Back

55   A Surveillance Society?, op. cit., para 222. Back

56   The Government Reply to A Surveillance Society?, op. cit., p 15.  Back

57   Gordon Brown MP, Speech on Liberty, op. cit.  Back

58   Sir David Varney, Service Transformation: A Better Service for Citizens and Businesses, a Better Deal for the Taxpayer, December 2006.  Back

59   Department for Education and Skills, Every Child Matters, Cm 5860, September 2003.  Back

60   Transformational Government-Enabled by Technology, op. cit.; Information Sharing Vision Statement, op. cit. Back

61   See paragraph 2. Back

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