Saturday, April 14, 2007

Surveillance and privacy in an e-society

ESRC e-societySpent an interesting day last week hearing the results of the privacy projects funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) under their e-society programme.

Charles Raab covered the suggestions for improved regulation of surveillance in the report the Surveillance Studies Network wrote last year for the Information Commissioner, including surveillance impact assessments for new government proposals. Fellow Network members David Murakami Wood and Kirstie Ball looked at the privacy issues of implanted tracking devices, and the employer-employee relationship. Ann Rudinow Saetnan suggested that statistical techniques used to measure the costs and benefits of medical tests should also be applied to new surveillance technologies — and often find that false positive results cause the most problem in systems. And Adam Joinson described experimental psychology work that found that individuals' trust in a web site was a much stronger determinant than the site's privacy policy in how much information they would be willing to disclose.

Several of the projects looked at the use of tracking technologies within government. John Taylor described systems being used by probation officers, for driving licence applications and in other areas of e-government. Nicholas Pleace talked about his work on data sharing to improve service delivery to homeless groups. While interesting, I thought both these projects would be enhanced by looking at the deeper question of whether data sharing was an efficient way to meet the government's stated policy objectives, and whether cheaper and less invasive systems could do the job just as well.

Other projects looked critically at the tracking of children using the Child Index, border security, regulating online privacy and the intensification of surveillance in the criminal justice system. Finally, Nigel Gilbert discussed the recent Royal Academy of Engineering project that he chaired which found that privacy and security can be complementary rather than in opposition.

A pleasure to hear about so much interesting research on privacy. Hopefully the ESRC will consider funding a follow-up programme!

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