Could the government be surveilling your granny?

This weekend I had a penny-drop moment. The UK Data Protection & Digital Information Bill, currently in the House of Lords, contains a contentious issue about the powers of the Secretary of State to surveil the bank accounts of people who receive state benefits. Now this power has always existed, but it was meant to be used in specific instances. 

At the heart of the debate lies Clause 128 and the accompanying Schedule 11, which, if enacted, would grant unprecedented powers to the Secretary of State. These powers enable the government to compel banks and financial service providers to engage in mass surveillance, monitoring the accounts into which various state benefits, including pensions, are deposited. My penny-drop moment was in relation to the pension's aspect. How many people does this have the potential to affect? Ostensibly introduced to combat fraud, the proposal has ignited a fierce dialogue about the delicate balance between privacy and security. 

The House of Lords have raised concerns. Baroness Young questioned the legitimacy of subjecting pensioners to what she termed "mass surveillance by algorithm," challenging the very essence of privacy in the UK. Lord Sikka warned of the far-reaching consequences, highlighting potential scenarios where innocent acts, like gifting or temporary boosts in bank balances, could trigger undeserved scrutiny. 

Whilst the debate unfolds, a significant compliance challenge looms large for banks and financial service providers. Schedule 11 places the onus on these institutions to meticulously identify and provide information on "matching accounts," risking erroneous disclosures and data breaches. The practical challenges could translate into financial and resource burdens, and the spectre of penalties for non-compliance hovers over institutions. 

Not just a matter of domestic concern, the issue of EU adequacy cast a long shadow over the proceedings. The Information Commissioner's cautious note raised questions about the proportionality of the proposed measures, and Lord Allan of Hallam warned of potential ramifications on UK businesses in the global arena. 

As we await the House of Lords committee stage in the coming weeks, the UK finds itself at a crossroads where the imperative of national security clashes with the fundamental principles of privacy. Join the impending discourse, and let your voice be heard as we navigate the contours of a potential digital frontier.