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Privacy Groups Want Big Brother Britain to Cut Data Collection

In the latest of many recent data security breaches in Britain, a computer was sold on eBay containing personal details of a million bank customers. Experts blame a surfeit of data.

People in London's Parliment Square use a red phone box

Has Britain gone overboard with data acquisition?

The computer was bought on the online auction site for 44 euros ($64) by an IT manager from Oxford, who found the information on the computer's hard drive.

Data included bank account numbers, phone numbers, mothers' maiden names and signatures of 1 million customers of American Express, NatWest and the Royal Bank of Scotland, the Independent newspaper reported.

The online find was merely the latest in a series of data security blunders to have occurred in Britain in the past year.

A USB memory stick plugged into a notebook computer

Memory sticks have made transporting -- and losing -- large amounts of data easy

Last week, a private consulting firm contracted by the UK Home Office lost data concerning prisoners in England and Wales. The data, which were on a memory stick mislaid by PA Consulting, also contained unencrypted personal details of 10,000 offenders currently in British jails.

In June, a government employee left top-secret intelligence files on al-Qaeda on a train; in January, the Ministry of Defense revealed that a laptop with details of some 600,000 people interested in joining the armed forces had been stolen from a naval officer; while in 2007, the details of 25 million claimants of child benefits were lost.

Failure of duty

After the information about all 84,000 prisoners in England and Wales disappeared, including names, addresses and in some cases, release date, shadow home secretary Dominic Grieve described the incident as a "massive failure of duty."

"What is more scandalous is that it is not the first time that the government has been shown to be completely incapable of protecting the integrity of highly sensitive data, rendering them unfit to be charged with protecting our safety," he said.

But according to the experts, these data security slip-ups come as no surprise: In a country where a lot of data is collected, they say, a lot of it is also going to go missing.

When it comes to gathering information on its citizens, Britain is the most active nation in Europe. According to the 2007 International Privacy Ranking carried out by Privacy International, it has the worst privacy protection and the highest levels of surveillance in the EU.

The only way to avoid data loss is to avoid compiling it in the first place, according to Ricardo Remmert-Fontes, a spokesman for the German Working Group on Data Retention.

"If data exists, then it can be manipulated and lost," he said.

Reducing data collection

Gordon Brown

The recent data loss fiascos have been a headache for PM Gordon Brown

The British Home Office has reached a similar conclusion. A spokesperson for the Ministry told DW-WORLD.DE that recommendations on reducing data and regulatory safeguards can be found in its June surveillance report.

In a bid to refute claims that Britain has turned into a "surveillance society," the Home Affairs Committee called on the government to follow a "minimum data, held for the minimum time" approach to British citizens' personal information

"The risks associated with surveillance increase with the range and volume of information collected," the report said. "The government has a crucial role to play in maintaining the trust of the public: any evaluation of the use of surveillance must take into account the potential risk to this relationship with the public."

The ID controversy

Earlier this year, the government unveiled a timetable for the introduction of controversial biometric identity cards, starting with non-European foreigners who will be obliged to have them later this year.

The scheme has generated heated debate in Britain. While the government claims the IDs will help fight crime including terrorism, civil liberties groups say they are an unnecessary threat to privacy and dispute the argument that they are needed for national security and curbing illegal immigration. Instead, they argue they represent an infringement of personal freedoms and are part of the rise of the "database state."

Questionable contractor?

A fingerprint check

To many, tighter security means an invasion of privacy

To add to the government's problems, the Home Office contractor which lost the computer memory stick containing the details of 84,000 prisoners is, according to the daily Independent, at the heart of developing the identity cards system.

PA Consulting won the government contract as the Home Office's "development partner" to work on the design, feasibility testing, business case and procurement elements of the identity cards program.

"People will start wondering whether ministers are capable of keeping any data safe anywhere in the country," said Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg. "If this government can't keep data about criminals safe, why should we trust them with the data of millions of innocent Britons in an ID card database?"

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