Privacy watchdog sounded the alarm over growing state and commercial
intrusion into people's lives as a report on Thursday ranked China
alongside Russia and Britain as "endemic surveillance societies."
Richard Thomas, the UK's independent information commissioner, said clear
lines needed to be drawn about the extent to which government agencies and
businesses could hoard information on people's movements and buying habits.
"Two years ago I warned that we were in danger of sleepwalking into a
surveillance society. Today I fear that we are in fact waking up to a
surveillance society that is already all around us," Thomas said.
Civil liberties group Privacy International, in a survey of 37 countries,
named Britain alongside Russia, China, Malaysia and Singapore as countries
practicing ``endemic'' surveillance against the individual.
Only slightly better were the United States, Thailand and the Philippines,
described as ``extensive'' surveillance societies.''
The survey, conducted jointly with the U.S.-based Electronic Privacy
Information Center, was based on 13 criteria ranging from constitutional
protections to visual surveillance and phone-tapping. Germany and Canada scored
the best marks for civil liberties safeguards.
Privacy concerns in Britain have been highlighted by developments such as the
planned introduction of national identity cards and a rapid growth in the
deployment of security cameras.
With an estimated 4.2 million now spread across the country, the average
Briton is captured about 300 times a day on film.
CLIMATE OF SUSPICION
Thomas said that while some forms of surveillance could help combat crime and
terrorism, others risked undermining trust and fostering a climate of suspicion.
He voiced concern about commercial as well as government intrusion.
"Every time we use a mobile phone, use our credit cards, go online to search
on the Internet, go electronic shopping, drive our cars, more and more
information is being collected," he told the BBC. "Humans must dictate our
future, not machines."
A report for a London conference hosted by Thomas predicted surveillance
would be ramped up even more in the next 10 years.
Among its forecasts: satellite navigation devices in cars would help police
to monitor speed and track selected vehicles; employees would be screened for
future health problems and their impact on productivity; monitoring of people's
movements would intensify, with the use of unmanned aircraft and street-level
security cameras with facial recognition technology.
Rights groups say governments around the world have used the war on terrorism
as justification for increased snooping into the lives of citizens.
They cite examples such as U.S. surveillance of data on millions of private
money transfers, and a U.S. government program, not authorized by the courts, to
eavesdrop on international phone calls and e-mails by Americans suspected of
links to terrorism.
Both programs were revealed to the U.S. media in leaks condemned by the Bush
administration, which defended them as important tools to uncover terrorist