Britain is an open, democratic and increasingly digital society. Technological innovation and the growth in global communication networks have enabled commerce, trade and the transfer of knowledge. British citizens, companies and the government have embraced the benefits of these ever-expanding national and international networks.
The availability of digital technology is having a profound effect on society. Computers guide our everyday activities and regulate our communications. Big data is reshaping the way we live, work and think. Digital information is helping us to identify social trends, tackle crime and prevent disease.
More information and data is being shared: between citizens themselves; between citizens and government; consumers and companies; and exchanged by the public and private sectors. Often this information is shared across national borders. Protecting privacy and ensuring data security is necessary but is thus becoming more difficult as information volumes increase and are moved and stored around the world.
The strain of technological evolution on society is particularly acute in the realms of crime, national security and public safety. Technological developments have enhanced the capacity of governments, companies and citizens to know more about individuals and to undertake surveillance, interception and data collection. The Internet has become the front line in contemporary debates about privacy and security.
Privacy is an essential prerequisite to the exercise of individual freedom, and its erosion weakens the constitutional foundations on which democracy and good governance have traditionally been based in this country.
Successive governments have faced a perpetual dilemma: democratic societies demand openness about what is being done in their name but key aspects of the way that police, security and intelligence agencies operate must remain secret in order for their work to be effective. These agencies are dependent on the public’s consent, and in an open society there is therefore an important understanding between citizens and the state that the agencies must operate within a strict legal framework, that their intrusions into private life must be necessary and proportionate, and that they must be overseen and scrutinised by independent bodies.
In Britain how these principles apply in practice in the digital age has been the subject of considerable controversy, with recent reviews concluding that the state of the law has not matched the pace of technological change.