Daniel Hamilton is Director of the civil liberties group Big Brother Watch.
Before last year’s general election, the Conservative Party made a clear pledge to reduce the personal information held on individuals by central government. The coalition agreement formalised this pledge, committing the government to “restoring the rights of individuals in the face of encroaching state power”.
While they have held to this pledge in respect of scrapping ID cards and abolishing the ContactPoint database, a £200 million system which was to have centrally logged the names, ages, addresses, schools, GPs and other private and personal details of 11 million children in the UK, their record has not been entirely positive.
The Government have, for example, opted to plough ahead with the Labour government’s Intercept Modernisation Programme system to log all text messages, phone calls and e-mails sent in the United Kingdom and they have reneged on their promise to abolish the Summary Care Record database of our medical data.
Mindful of the Coalition’s genuinely mixed record to date on civil liberties issues, the Home Secretary’s announcement in respect of the Passenger Name Records (PNR) system is deeply disappointing.
The Home Office have confirmed that the Government will, at a meeting of European justice and home affairs minister on Monday, push for plans to create an EU-wide database of travel records to include provisions to retain data of all flights for up to six years. As presently drafted, the scheme would only apply to flights in and out of Europe and would see personal details anonymised after 30 days.
By taking such a position, the United Kingdom Government has set itself on a collision with the German Government and European Parliament, both of which are actively opposed to the extension of this type of data sharing on an EU level on civil liberties grounds.
Quite apart from any concerns civil liberties campaigners may have about this latest scheme, the Government already holds too excessive an amount of information about our travel habits as a result of the “e-borders” scheme.
“E-borders” demands – under the provisions of the Immigration and Police (Passenger, Crew and Service Information) Order 2008 – the following pieces of information are, among others, recorded for each journey:
- The identity of the individual who has made the travel booking.
- The names of any other passengers who are included on the same booking.
- The means by which the ticket was booked, including the number of any credit or debit cards used.
- A note that the ticket booked is one-way (if applicable).
- The class of transport in which the passenger is travelling.
- The card number of any frequent traveller scheme used by the individual.
- Any personalised meal requests i.e. for dietary or religious reasons.
In total, the system logs 42 different pieces of information about each traveller (59 if they are lucky enough to be under the age of eighteen).
Each of the 42 pieces of data obtained relating to each passenger are logged on a central database in Manchester which can be accessed by a myriad of government bodies including the Police, Home Office and UK Border Authority. While the exact number of individuals with access to the data archived under the e-borders scheme has yet to be determined, one only need to look past examples of data loss by government departments to see the foolhardiness of storing such a diverse range of personal information about individuals on a centralised government database.
Nobody would argue that it is not wise for the immigration authorities to conduct a due diligence exercise in order to guarantee both the safety of passengers and the integrity of Britain’s borders. The Passenger Name Records and e-borders systems, however, cross the fine line between ensuring safety and unnecessarily intruding on privacy.
In seeking to ensure the safety of individual flights it is of course logical for the names and birth dates of passengers to be cross-referenced against those of not just suspected terrorists but also those with past histories of having caused disruption on aircrafts. But, beyond this, due diligence as to the safety of the baggage checked in by passengers and the effects they have about their person can easily be conducted via the existing scanning procedures. The collection of any additional information is an invasive and unnecessary distraction from the core objective of ensuring the safety of passengers.
The Home Secretary should think again before pushing for the introduction of a policy as intrusive and illiberal as the PNR system.
A government elected on a promise to scale back the database state should be an opponent of this type of policy, not its biggest cheerleader.