The regulation of privacy in a surveillance society


New understanding of the importance of privacy for society has influenced Scottish, UK, and international policy on data protection, privacy and surveillance.

What was the problem? 

Advances in technology mean that it is easier to be watched than ever before. Public and private companies use personal data, and use increasingly sophisticated ways to collect it. Could collection of this data have worrying effects on our human right to privacy?

Previous research has seen this as a legal or ethical problem relating only to the individual. Professor Charles Raab, however, looked into the impact of privacy intrusions in a wider sense. He asked whether intrusive surveillance might have a harmful effect on society as a whole

What did we do? 

Working with Professor Colin Bennett, Raab created a theory of privacy which included social effects as well as the impact on individuals. For example, their work looks at how discrimination can occur when people are categorised as a result of data collected about them. This approach regards data collection as a social policy. This means it is based on value judgements, not just neutral laws. Raab argues that we need to protect privacy for the good of society as a whole.

Raab applied his approach to the Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA). The PIA is used in many countries to decide how privacy should be treated. Raab argues that the PIA is too narrow. It needs to be widened to include a broader view of society. For example, we need to look at how surveillance affects social groups who come under unfair suspicion.

[the report Professor Raab worked on was a] seminal piece for Liberty's policy thinking … we continue to draw on it for policy.
Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty
What happened next? 

These insights have affected privacy policy in Scotland, the UK and internationally.

In Scotland, Raab worked on the Scottish Government report Identity Management and Privacy Principles. This report has influenced many decisions in the public sector, such as those regulating health research and the assurance of privacy in digital public services.

As part of the Surveillance Studies Network, Raab helped to draft reports for the House of Commons and the House of Lords. This led to discussions about how to limit the ‘surveillance society’. The report Surveillance: Citizens and the State received extensive media coverage including articles in the Guardian, the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, the BBC News website and the Socialist.

Raab helped write Protecting Information for the Equality and Human Rights Commission and worked on a report for liberal think-tank Demos. He guided policy and campaigning by Liberty, a human rights and civil liberties group, via the report Overlooked: Surveillance and Personal Privacy in Modern Britain.

Raab was one of five experts commissioned to review Privacy Impact Assessments in the UK in 2012. The reviewers’ report has guided the position of the Independent Commissioner’s Office on privacy law.

In Canada and Australia, Bennett and Raab’s work has been used in reports on public privacy policy.

About the researcher(s)

Professor of Government

Research unit

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