Protect people's privacy, says Information Commissioner

The government must protect people's privacy against the growing use of surveillance technology, the Information Commissioner has said.

As he gave evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee today, Richard Thomas proposed creating new privacy impact assessments to track the implementation of new surveillance tools.

"It is essential that before new surveillance technologies are introduced full consideration is given to the impact on individuals and that safeguards are in place to minimise intrusion," he said.

Such assessments, which are already in use in Australia and the US, consider the effects of surveillance and other information gathering systems on privacy.

Thomas also said the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) needs stronger inspection powers to carry out audits. Currently, the ICO needs consent to inspect an organisation for Data Protection Act compliance.

"People now understand that data protection is an essential barrier to excessive surveillance," he said. "But it is wrong that my office cannot find out what is happening in practice without the consent of each organisation."

Thomas said that many surveillance tools benefit modern life, but that there must be a balance and limits to protect people's privacy.

"No one wants their electronic footprint to expose every aspect of their daily life," he said. "Positive action is required to ensure the potential risks do not manifest themselves. Otherwise the trust and confidence which individuals must have in all organisations that hold information about them will be placed in jeopardy."