[Sir John Butterfill in the Chair] — A Surveillance Society?

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:24 pm on 19th March 2009.

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Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Shadow Minister (Olympics and London), Shadow Minister (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Olympics and London) 3:24 pm, 19th March 2009

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is right to highlight that the issue is perhaps not totally black and white and that there is some grey in between. He is right to ask how many people might have been saved if the relevant DNA had been retained on the database, but one could also ask how many more people would have been saved if the money had been spent on other measures.

The right hon. Gentleman has reminded me of an interesting and sad case in my constituency where a mother's daughter was murdered and the police requested local men to come forward and give their DNA—I am pleased to say that many local men did so. Again, once those men were eliminated from the police inquiries, they should have had the right to have their DNA removed, if that is what they chose to do. However, if people voluntarily choose to leave their DNA on the database, I am not going to argue against allowing it to remain there.

I shall now mention the child database, ContactPoint, to which I referred earlier. At home, we have just received the letter informing us that, through that system, information will be kept on computer. We clearly called for that system to be scrapped. Perhaps the Minister will accuse me of being against a massive database in relation to that issue, but I am not against massive databases when it comes to child benefits, tax credits or housing benefit, because that is how they work. However, ContactPoint is a massive database that is likely to present a risk, which I think the Government have acknowledged. As with any other database, there can be no guarantees that security is watertight and that at no point in the future will people whom we do not want to access the database be able to do so in a way that could put children at risk.

I shall finish by mentioning some new concerns—I would not say that they were threats necessarily. In the past couple of weeks, Google has launched a couple of services, one of which is Google Latitude. The service is enabled through people's phones and allows their friends to track where they are on a Google map. I have no problem with a voluntary arrangement whereby people choose to let their friends know where they are. However, there seems to be the potential for people to use the technology in such a way that the owner of the phone does not necessarily know that the service has been enabled. We tested the technology on my phone and, after a certain number of days, a text message is sent to the phone to tell people that the service has been enabled. However, I do not know whether that happens for every device of that kind.

In the past couple of days, Google has launched another application called Street View, through which people can look at different streets in different cities around the country. The technology is moving so fast that my concern is whether the Government, the Information Commissioner and everyone else who needs to be involved can get ahead of the technological curve, or whether they will always be trying to catch up with technology that is continually pushing at the barriers and putting such images into the public domain. Interestingly, the police were asked about Street View, and they said that it was useful, because it would help to cut crime. I am not sure whether that suggests that there will be a working relationship between the police and Google Street View to ensure that those images are shared. If so, I would be interested to know what the data protection issues are and what dialogue took place before that application was made live—it is now live. Will the Minister say precisely what is happening in terms of all those technological developments and what the discussion process is before applications that potentially threaten our privacy are released by commercial companies?

I am afraid that I have lost track of how much time I have left—okay, I have seen how long I have been speaking, and it is probably time for me to finish. The last thing that I want to mention is e-Borders. An alarming article in The Daily Telegraph, to which I hope the Minister will respond, stated:

"By the end of the year 60 per cent. of journeys made out of Britain will be affected with 95 per cent. of people leaving the country being subject to the plans"— the e-Borders programme—


The Minister will know that we support the e-Borders programme in relation to exit controls, because we need to know who is leaving the country so that we can ensure that, for example, the UK Border Agency knows when asylum seekers have left the country and does not continue to investigate the cases. However, the extent of the details that will be held on the system is concerning— travel plans, addresses, credit card details. In addition, notification is required 24 hours in advance and there is the potential to be fined if that information is not supplied. I hope that the Minister will say that the scale of what is being suggested is not what the Government are truly planning.

I had better finish, Sir John. I just want to say that Liberal Democrats have real concerns about the surveillance society and the privacy issues that the report has highlighted. We have issued our freedom Bill, which sets out how we would respond to things such as ID cards, RIPA, DNA retention and the children's database. We are at risk of sleepwalking into a surveillance society, and the Minister needs to wake up before the threat becomes reality.