Top four government data collection issues

Since September 11 2001, the volumes of information collected by counter terrorism and law enforcement agencies, and countless organisations on their behalf, has grown by several orders of magnitude.

Since September 11 2001, the volumes of information collected by counter terrorism and law enforcement agencies, and countless organisations on their behalf, has grown by several orders of magnitude.

Few have been as conscientious as the British government.

The UK is home to around 5 million CCTV cameras, 20 percent of the world's total.

The average London commuter has his or her image taken several hundred times a day as they travel to work. Similarly UK motorists, who are rarely out of view as it is, can expect to be even more conspicuous once a new system designed to recognise number plates comes into operation.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Governments around the world are increasingly enlisting the help of telecommunications providers to monitor people's interactions.

Volumes of raw data

Echelon, which is the name of America's massive conversation vacuum cleaner filters through about 3 billion voice and data interactions a day, and efforts are afoot in the UK to further widen the net.

But with such staggering volumes of information being collected, enforcement agencies now face the challenge of putting it to use at the same time as securing it. Some analysts suggest they are at the bottom of a very steep learning curve.

"Most of the time, things picked up as suspicious behaviour are very largely innocent," explains Graham Titterington, principal analyst and IT security expert with analyst firm Ovum.

Facial recognition technology carried much promise for law enforcement agencies, with various companies and law enforcement agencies working to develop solutions that would enable surveillance cameras to handle biometric information to identify people in crowds.

But even the most advanced technologies available today present too many false positives to be taken seriously.

"The days when all of this is connected together and a camera says, 'Oh there's Joe Bloggs' is far away, probably never," says Titterington. "There's still a fair degree of anonymity for criminals." And the fact that the majority of video footage is discarded almost immediately should give them peace of mind as well.

One of the criticisms levelled at law enforcement agencies in the UK and elsewhere is that there is too much of a focus on quantity and not enough thought given to the quality of the data.

In fact, some argue that while privacy groups are up in arms about increased government powers to snoop on people, the more information that is collected the harder it becomes to make sense of it.

"Ultimately it doesn't matter if you're in special services, police services, the NHS or anybody - the information is only as good as the quality of what is collected and analysed," notes Neil Berry, a director with Deloitte UK's data practice.

"You have to have a high degree of certainty that what you're getting is good quality. If the quality of data is poor you're sunk." Often it simply leads to storage and processing resources being wasted.

Data analytics

The realisation of this fact is driving demand for more sophisticated data analytics to help law enforcement and other organisations to better prioritise information.

Australian company Net Map Analytics is a leader in this field, helping companies track things like insurance fraud. It pioneered important methods for forensic accounting, which has seen a recent surge in demand.

The company's flagship product, Net Map, uses visual representations to illuminate possible relationships between myriad elements, without the need for massive data processing.

In the 1990s the company famously helped the Australian police force solve the notorious backpacker murders in New South Wales.

Investigators applied NetMapping technology to things like Roads and Traffic Authority vehicle reports, gym memberships and gun licensing police records. A long list of suspects was eventually narrowed down to a short list of 230, and then to a shorter list of 32, which included the killer.

Privacy

The capturing of criminals and foiling of terrorist plots is of the course the primary motivation for enforcement agencies collecting so much information on all of us. Yet with the huge volumes and different varieties of data now in their possession comes a massive responsibility and considerable challenges in protecting it.

The UK has one of the largest DNA databases in the world. According to the Home Office, it holds 5,794,636 profiles relating to 5,000,922 individuals, or a little over five percent of UK residents. By contrast, only around 0.5 percent of US residents are on that country's DNA database.

The reason why the UK's is so large is that all DNA samples taken during the course of investigations are retained, a move which has raised concerns amongst privacy advocates.

In its defence, the Home Office reports that in the decade to September 2008, close to 400,000 crimes were solved using the database.

"Developments in technology are transforming the way we live and communicate," says a spokesman for the Home Office.

"We need to ensure we keep up with the technology being used by those who would cause us harm and that the police and other crime fighting agencies have the tools they need to do their job."

A further £300m was allocated recently to fund improvements and expand the DNA database.

Added to this is the relatively new, yet fast expanding pool of biometric information.

Around 17 million biometric passports have been issued in the UK since their introduction in 2006. The Home Office expects that, by 2017, almost all British passports will contain a biometric record of the holder's face, as well as two fingerprints, the latter being phased in from 2011/12.

"The cost of passports has gone through the roof," says Ovum's Titterington.

The proposed ID card will contain the same information on the owner, with the corresponding identity register predicted to grow into a huge and expensive database.

Plans to include iris scans in both passports and ID cards were scuttled for being too expensive, although an Iris scanning system was recently deployed at London's Heathrow Airport designed to assist people who have registered to move through customs faster.

Security

The current generation of biometric systems are far from infallible. Concerns have been raised that people's biometric identities could be stolen and misused, raising questions about how well these swelling biometric databases are being protected.

The UK's biometric and DNA databases are managed by the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA), which came under scrutiny last year after it emerged that the data would soon be freely available to law agencies in the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand under the so-called "Server in the Sky" initiative. Under the plan law enforcement agencies would share iris, finge print and palm data.

It is not clear what safeguards are planned. Many are worried about what such a precedent would mean for privacy in the future.

Ovum's Titterington feels that the British government is not doing enough to properly protect the personal information it collects.

"There's always a risk of hacking if you put lots of information in one place."

The British government has a poor record for losing information in public as well as deliberately profiting from it.

Recent revelations that the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA) had sold personal information to a wheel clamping company in London sparked widespread outrage.

"Data collected for one purpose is being used for a different purpose," Ovum's Titterington states.

It is inevitable, according to Deloitte's Berry: "There are always things going on that people don't know about and don't understand that will necessitate bringing together large volumes of data from many different quarters - it's something that's always happened and always will."

Yet the Home Office is adamant that the right balance is being struck between state powers and citizen privacy.

"Relentless targeting of dangerous individuals has helped us pre-empt many attacks and bring serious criminals and terrorists to justice," says the spokesman.

"In doing so we recognise the importance of striking the right balance between individual privacy and collective security."

In April this year the Home Office launched a series of consultations on both the Regulation of Investigatory Power Act and on communications data, the results of which - soon to be published - are likely to inform future government policy on the management and sharing of citizen data.

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