Privacy in the UK has been increasingly eroded under the current Labour government with the growth of computer databases, surveillance cameras and DNA testing, and individuals' data has been put at risk by numerous large-scale data losses in the public sector.
Former Information Commissioner Richard Thomas warned in 2006 that the UK is "sleepwalking into a surveillance society". The same year a ranking of 37 countries by Privacy International identified the UK level of surveillance as "endemic", lower than any other EU country and at the same level as Russia, China and Singapore.
The sheer number of government databases was highlighted in March last year by the Database State (PDF) report from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. The report rated just six of the 46 central government databases as safe.
The UK public has expressed its anxiety over the government's increasing surveillance by protesting against initiatives such as the ID Card scheme and the Digital Economy Bill, which will force internet service providers to monitor the internet.
Last year 1,500 people, including politicians and human rights activists, attended a public meeting called the Convention of Modern Liberty, to discuss how increasing UK government surveillance is eroding individuals' freedom and privacy.
The growing sentiment to restore privacy has spurred the government's opposition parties to make the issue of privacy central to their 2010 election campaign.
Perhaps unsurprisingly the Labour party has kept relatively quiet on the issue. It has argued in the past that the growth in databases and surveillance is needed to protect society against crime and terrorism, and to increase public sector efficiency.
Meanwhile, commentators disagree as to what extent the erosion of privacy is due to Labour's misguided policies, and the extent that it is inevitable and would be the outcome of any political party in power as politicians cannot afford to ignore the benefits that technology innovation brings to society.
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg promised citizens more control over their data when he made a speech last month to Privacy International to mark the organisation's 20th anniversary. He said that the election is an opportunity for people "to vote to take their privacy back".
"Labour has spent 13 years trampling over people's privacy. From allowing children's fingerprints to be taken at school without their parents' consent, to making us a world leader in CCTV, to wasting vast sums of taxpayers' money on giant databases that hoard our personal details. And now we hear that ministers want pensioners to swap their bus passes for ID cards," he said.
"The government's staggering record on losing private data – leaving it in pub car parks and on commuter trains – just makes matters worse."
Clegg argued that a Conservative government would not improve matters. "The Conservatives talk a good game on privacy, but scratch beneath the surface and it's clear they can't be trusted to roll back Labour's surveillance state," he said.
"Just look at their plans to make it even easier for the police to watch and record people getting on with their daily lives, all in the name of cutting red tape."
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