The compulsory identity card could be used to carry out surveillance on people, MPs warned today.
Members of the Home Affairs Select Committee said it was concerned that the way the authorities use sensitive data gathered in the multi-billion pound programme could “creep” to include spying.
The all-party committee also urged ministers to make plans on how to deal with the theft of personal details from the National Identity Scheme, which will build a massive database on every person over 16 in Britain.
It accepted ministers’ assurances that surveillance was not part of current plans, but asked for a guarantee that no expansion would take place without MPs’ approval.
“We are concerned … about the potential for ‘function creep’ in terms of the surveillance potential of the National Identity Scheme,” the report said.
“Any ambiguity about the objectives of the scheme puts in jeopardy the public’s trust in the scheme itself and in the Government’s ability to run it.
“Whilst we accept the Government’s assurance that the scheme will not be used as a surveillance tool, we seek the further assurance that any initiative to broaden the scope of the scheme will only be proposed after consulting the Information Commissioner and on the basis that proposals will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny in draft form.”
It said a “broad outline of contingency plans” should be drawn up to deal with a security breach in the ID cards programme.
Referring to last year’s child benefit disks scandal, it said: “Recent data loss incidents have involved failures not of technology but of policy in that those who had access to the information in question did not observe proper procedures for the handling and sharing of data.
“The minister’s assurances that the Government has learned lessons, though welcome, are not sufficient to reassure us or, we suspect, the public.”
Looking at the issue of surveillance generally, the committee called on Government to minimise the amount of information it collected and held on citizens.
“It should collect only what is essential, to be stored only for as long as is necessary,” the report said.
The report also urged the Government to set up new controls on the National DNA Database to prevent “unnecessary invasions of privacy”.
A new framework should also make it easier for people whose DNA is on the system to challenge the decision to retain their records, it added.
A public consultation should take place on the level of authorisation required for public bodies to use surveillance powers, said the MPs.
Awareness should be raised of the powers available under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, it said.
They also asked the Home Office to pledge that it would not adopt schemes which feature CCTV with the ability to record conversations.
Committee chairman Keith Vaz said: “What we are calling for is an overall principle of ‘least data, for least time’.
“We have all seen over the past year extraordinary examples of how badly things can go wrong when data is mis-handled, with potentially disastrous consequences.”
He added: “The public don’t have much choice over the data held on them by public bodies so they must be confident about how it is being collected, stored and used, otherwise we are in danger of becoming a ‘surveillance society’.
“Data that is collected and managed well and securely by governments has great potential for improvements in our safety and security and in improving public services.
“Data that is managed badly – the wrong kind of information, kept for too long – will have exactly the opposite effects.”
Information Commissioner Richard Thomas said: “I welcome the Home Affairs Committee’s call for the Government to adopt the principle of data minimisation and curb unnecessary surveillance.
“It is essential that positive action is taken to ensure the potential risks of a surveillance society never manifest themselves in this country.”
He added: “The more personal details that are collected, the greater the risk that mistakes will occur.
“Every possible step must be taken to ensure public trust in the way that personal information is collected and stored.”
The chairman of the Local Government Association, Sir Simon Milton, said: “Councils use these powers to respond to residents’ complaints about rip-off merchants, fly tippers and benefit fraudsters who cheat the taxpayer and prey on the vulnerable and the elderly. This is entirely what the Act is intended for. Without these powers councils would not be able to provide the same level of reassurance and protection local people demand and deserve.
“I understand some people have concerns over the use of surveillance. We are working with the Government, police chiefs and the surveillance commissioners to clarify some of the details of the legislation and make sure it is clear when and how surveillance should be used.”