HL Deb 03 December 1969 vol 306 cc103-77

2.43 p.m.

LORD WINDLESHAM rose to call attention to the need to reconcile the more efficient handling of personal records by means of computers with individual freedom and privacy; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I wonder how many of your Lordships were reflecting, as I was, during that last Question by the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, on the perennial difficulties of reconciling individual freedom and liberty with the needs of an organised society. The noble Lord may have felt that he did not get very far to-day, but there is no doubt that he, and crusaders like him, play a very valuable and continuing part in the political process by Questions of this sort, which he presses so effectively in this House and outside? As a result, the individual does, I think, have his rights preserved against the needs of organisations and against the requirements of administrators and officials who, however well-intentioned they may be, may give more weight to the needs of the organisation than to those of the individual. Therefore, I think that the noble Lord's Question, coincidentally, provides a fitting introduction to the subject of to-day's debate.

Having said that, I should like to make clear that the Motion standing on the Order Paper to-day in my name does not in any way seek to restrict the use that is made of computers. I believe that the electronic computer has already brought substantial benefits to mankind and that in the future, if properly used, it may be a principal means towards a more leisured, skilled and prosperous society. The future development of computer technology and the widest possible use of computers should be promoted and encouraged vigorously and systematically by the Government and by other public and private agencies. The capacity and the limitations of computers need to be studied and understood. The contribution they can make to a better society should never be underestimated. This Motion, therefore, far from being a Luddite one, is intended to be constructive. It makes no attempt to return to the era of the quill pen or the handwritten ledger. Its sole purpose is to recognise that advances in technology need to be matched by equivalent movements in political thought, and subsequently by political action.

In its modern electronic form the computer is only just about old enough to have got the vote, but its achievements already are credible only because we have seen them with our own eyes. Computers can, and do, control complete industrial processes in factories. Computers can, and do, steer rockets to the moon. There would be no moon flights without the computer. Computers are capable of handling unimaginable quantities of information in centralised systems. These systems can, and do, concern anything and, increasingly, any person. Personal health and social security records; insurance claims; bank accounts; personal taxation: credit ratings and a mass of other information which affect the individual is held on computers which are used by public or by private bodies.

Without being too starry-eyed about the future, it is quite realistic to forecast that a single cash transaction between the citizen and the State will replace the present cumbersome and inefficient system. What happens now? With one hand the State collects money from the individual in the form of personal taxation and insurance contributions; with the other hand it hands back money to the same citizen in a multiplicity of social and welfare benefits in cash. Both these processes can, and in the course of time I think there is no doubt that they will, be combined on to a single computer system. I will not go into the details of this now, but one scheme for what has been called an Automatic Unit for National Taxation and Insurance, AUNTIE, has been worked out and published by the Conservative Political Centre.

In all this, computers are still programmed by fallible human beings, and therefore the possibilities of error exist. I have seen no evidence to suggest that wrong information in computing systems handling personal records is in any way common. But when factual errors do occur, of course they are particularly unfortunate. In statistical terms—if the record has been gathered for this purpose —an error showing that a woman is still married when in fact she is divorced and living apart from her husband may be insignificant, but to the individual concerned it can be very serious.

Mistakes are also difficult to detect because of the remoteness and relative inaccessibility of the computer systems. Therefore, it may be several years before it comes to an individual's notice that an error is contained in the personal information recorded about him; or, even harder to detect, that the information recorded about him is accurate in so far as it goes but that it is incomplete, and may therefore be presenting to those who are using it a misleading impression.

More of a problem than unintentional errors, or incomplete information—and these are things that can and do occur in any system, although I think less in computer systems than in most others—is the question of access to the computer, and whether the user is authorised or not. Here, what I am discusing is the confidentiality which depends on the security of the computer system itself, rather than the broader aspects of the individual's right to privacy, to which I shall refer later.

While I was in the United States recently I was able to visit the corporate headquarters of International Business Machines at Armonk in the State of New York. I.B.M. have developed a number of techniques of protection which are designed to prevent intruders, whether curious or malicious, from obtaining un-authorised access either to proprietary data or to personal information about individuals. These safeguards fall, in the main, into three categories. The first depends on a recognition that the environment in which the computer is operating must be as secure as the machinery itself. So the trustworthiness of the operating personnel is an important factor, and normal management controls, such as accounting practices of separating responsibilities between personnel, will apply. In this way, which is fairly standard with any confidential information in any sort of system, an authorised user will have access only to that part of a central file with which his own work is concerned, and not to the whole file.

The second category is a range of physical security devices, the simplest being a straightforward lock both on the computer and on the terminals to the computer, which may present problems in that they are very often located in some different place from the computer itself. There are some particularly interesting developments which are taking place in this field. The more advanced devices include ways of reading badges and other forms of physical identification and a technique which will enable the computer to grant or deny access on the basis of the physical characteristics of the user. Although it is not yet generally available, a technique has now been developed by I.B.M. which transmits the user's voice from a terminal to the computer, where it is compared with a "voice print" which has already been stored there for identification purposes.

The third category of security is provided by the capability of the computer itself. Codes and passwords, both changed regularly, are included in the programme, so that the computer will respond only when the correct symbols are typed in at a terminal. These straightforward codes and passwords can be extended in a number of ways. On some systems the user keys in the password and, next, the identification number, and follows this with his own security code. The computer then checks not only that the password is valid and up-to-date, but also that the individual has in fact been issued with that security code. A more ingenious technique is one of question and answer between the computer and the user. This can be used either on its own or in connection with security codes and passwords, keys or badges. What happens here is that the user signs on, and the computer responds with a number of very simple questions which are displayed on a small television screen at the terminal. The questions are simple but they are ones to which only a particular user might be expected to know the answer. Examples are the Christian names of a grandparent, the birthday of one of his children or a former address. These questions and answers are stored in the computer at the time that the user is originally authorised to have access to the system, but the selection of questions which are presented when he signs on, or their combination, will vary on each occasion. Therefore, any un-authorised person who might be present and can memorise the answers to the questions will not be able to use this knowledge on a subsequent occasion because the questions presented will be different.

My Lords, there are other interesting examples of security systems, but I should like to move on to the wider issues of privacy. I think the question of privacy is a harder one to discuss, and one which, on the whole, gives rise to more disquiet than the technical problems of safeguarding information held on computers. While I greatly look forward to hearing the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and other noble Lords on this topic, it seems to me that the right of privacy is a somewhat ephemeral one and hard to define satisfactorily. I suppose that in its essential elements it consists of the right of the individual to select the time, circumstance and extent to which knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, behaviour or opinions should be disclosed to or withheld from others. I think it was Brandeis who described privacy as the right most valued by civilised men and, more simply, as the right to be let alone. In plain language, this statement probably comes closer to what most people think of instinctively as their right to privacy than some of the more elaborate formulations.

Advances in technology have clearly had an impact on privacy. I do not think anyone would deny that. The whole subject of wire-tapping, electronic eavesdropping and "bugging", which we are not concerned with to-day but which has been debated in your Lordships' House before, has become more acute because of the technical advances in micro-miniaturisation and circuitry. Of course, all Governments, local authorities and other forms of authority have for a very long time recorded information about individuals. But we might remember that a considerable measure of protection, inadvertent though it may have been, was provided by the highly dispersed nature of those records. Furthermore, there was an inability on the part of those keeping the records to handle this vast mass of information which was accumulated over a period of years. Now, the centralisation of personal records on computers, on a national scale in many instances, makes the effective utilisation of this information possible. Before long, a man from London who is knocked down by a bus in Newcastle will have details of his blood group supplied from a central medical records computer network within a matter of minutes. So there are very great benefits to be obtained, of which that is one example.

But at the same time as these benefits there are, as always, dangers. It may be that we are adequately prepared to meet these dangers, but I doubt it. For one thing, there is no clear-cut concept of personal information as a precious commodity which requires a measure of protection. When we talk of rights in a legal sense we tend to think either of rights attached to property or of rights which are attached to the person. What is personal information? It is not a property right: it is not, strictly speaking, a right attached to the person. It lies in as half-land between the two. Although, in a way, details supplied by an individual about himself are an extension of his own personality, such information is not covered by the same legal protection as the individual can claim for his own person. At the same time, it is not a property right. I do not want to go further into this subject because we are entering deep legal water and the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will no doubt guide us through it when he replies. I hope he will be able to tell the House whether he feels that the present state of the law as it affects privacy and personal records is satisfactory, or whether there are deficiencies in the law and in current practice, and, if so, how the situation can best be remedied.

It may be that a strictly legal approach is not in any event the most appropriate one at this stage. When I first became interested in this subject in the last Session, I introduced a Bill into your Lordships' House which was entitled the Personal Records (Computers) Bill. This was identical with a Private Member's Bill, titled the Data Surveillance Bill, which had been introduced into the House of Commons by Mr. Kenneth Baker, the Member for Acton, with all-Party support. Both these Bills sought to limit the possible invasion of privacy through the misuse of computer information by providing a register of data banks. All such banks set up for central or local government purposes would need to be registered, as well as certain other categories of data banks which were listed in the Bill. Once registered, the operator of such a bank would have an obligation to notify all persons about whom he was holding information exactly what details were contained in their personal records. This would be done we suggested in these Bills, by sending a print-out within a specified period of the information first being included in the system. Thereafter a further print-out could be obtained at any time on application and on payment of a fee.

Another important feature of the Bill was that it specified that the print-out of an individual's personal record should be accompanied by, first, a statement of the purposes for which the information was first gathered; second, information of the use that had been made of it since the previous print-out had been received; and, third, the names and addresses of any third parties to whom the information had been sent. These provisions were an attempt to give substance to what is perhaps the clearest principle that can be identified in this rather uncertain situation. To me, the guiding principle should surely be that the individual has a right to know of and to limit the circulation of information about himself. This, I suggest, is the most practical way of considering the relationship between personal information and the right of the individual to privacy. It is in this sense an ingredient of the individual's right to privacy and one that should not be infringed without the showing of an overriding social need and that protective safeguards have been established in the first instance and satisfied thereafter.

Now it may be that the proposals contained in my Bill and in Mr. Baker's identical Bill in another place are too far reaching and that for Parliament to set up a statutory system of registration of data banks would be premature at this stage. But this is a matter in which the law will, I am sure, at some point have to intervene. I believe most people would agree, I think, that the point at which the law comes in should not be too late; for if the present situation of technological drift continues it may be that the practice will determine what can be done, because there will be limits on the action of Government.

I am inclined to think at this stage, however, that we are in a phase that immediately precedes law making, hence the debate on a Motion for Papers where people having an interest in the subject will express points of view, rather than on the Second Reading of a Bill which makes specific proposals. What is needed, perhaps more urgently than proposals for substantive law, is for thinking and discussion to take place. so that the embryonic issues of the type which I have described this afternoon are identified and exposed. Public attention called to a latent problem can sometimes prevent a real problem emerging in the future. In this sense, what is called for is a style of "preventive" law which has as its elements public policies, ethical codes adopted by users of computer systems, and standards of business practice, as well as statutory rules to cover certain particular circumstances.

Public debate is already beginning in this country, as it is in developed countries elsewhere in the world, and particularly in the United States. The Consumer Council has expressed concern about credit-rating bureaux and the increasing centralisation of information about debtors. Since in most cases the individual does not know whether information is held about him or not, or, if it is, the source from which it came, the possibility clearly exists that people may be given a poor credit rating without their knowing about it or deserving it. I was rather interested to see that the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, Chairman of the Consumer Council, is proposing to speak later in the debate to-day. The National Council for Civil Liberties has also taken an interest in this subject, particularly as it affects the social services. I accompanied a delegation from the National Council of Civil Liberties in June to discuss this subject with the Minister of State for Social Security. At this meeting a number of guide-lines were discussed and argued which set out clearly the main lines for future development and summarised the concern about centralised information held in computer systems.

These guide-lines were, first, the individual's right to know what is recorded about him; second, his right to know for what purpose the information is required and to be told what the purpose is at the time that the information is given; third, the right to know which people or which agencies will have access to the information and that adequate safeguards exist to prevent un-authorised access; fourth, the maintenance of existing restrictions on the exchange of interdepartmental information; fifth, the right to correct information if it is wrong: and, sixth, the right to appeal to an independent body in case of dispute. I may say that these are not specific, narrowly formulated arguments put to the Government in a form which could be incorporated in legislation; they are principles which a number of people interested in the subject felt should be put to representatives of the Government at that point. Those six principles, I believe, cover the sort of safeguards that might be provided.

Public discussion is undoubtedly building up, and I hope that the debate in this House, with some of the considerable authorities on the subject who are taking part, will help it along. But for the debate to be fruitful and to move down an informed road towards final action the Government must be in a position to respond. I am sure that we are all delighted that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is to speak for the Government at the end of the debate to-day. Apart from his great knowledge and wisdom in legal matters, his own Department is closely concerned with the subject matter of the Motion. But so are many others.

Last Session, when seeking to whom to address myself on the subject, I had some difficulty in finding any Department which accepted responsibility. Finally, the Home Office came forward, and the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, who was at the Home Office at that time, corresponded with me on a number of occasions. The Ministry of Technology, as the expert Department encouraging the wider use of computers, is also concerned, and so are the large users of computer systems: the Department of Health and Social Security; the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications; the Registrar General; the Department of Education and Science (which, as noble Lords will know, was the target last week of some criticism on these lines from the National Union of Students), and, I would think, the Civil Service Department. So, while it is quite natural that new subjects should cut across departmental boundaries, I think it is not unreasonable to expect that ministerial responsibilities might be adjusted accordingly. Surely, somewhere among the 100 or so members of the Administration responsibility could be established for thinking about this whole question of how advances in technology affect the traditional rights of the individual.

I know that a number of Ministers are personally very interested in this subject, and the noble Lord the Leader of the House may well be one. But until the responsibility is actually attached to somebody, simply because it falls between Departments it is, I think, very difficult for the Government to respond to this sort of public debate, not just in this House but public debate, over a period of months, outside.

My Lords, that is all I have to say in opening the debate on this Motion. I hope that I have not gone on for too long. Let me end by summarising the argument. Computers bring great benefits in the more efficient handling of personal information, but they are open to potential abuse. This may take the form of infringement of confidentiality, something which can be met by more secure systems. At the same time, traditional ideas of privacy are being altered. In the new circumstances the individual has a right to know what is recorded about him and the use to which the information is being put. These rights should be recognised and they should be protected. Ethical codes and standards of practice need to be supported by public policies and, ultimately, by legal safeguards. Informed public discussion has an important role in evolving the most appropriate form of safeguard, but to be productive it must be matched and answered by the Government. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.15 p.m.


My Lords, the whole House will be indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, for having initiated this debate to-day. I shall follow him fairly closely in what he said, and I think it is inevitable that those of us who have been involved in this subject will speak very much in the same vein. There are a number of major subjects in which modern society has become involved, largely as a result of rapid advances in the field of technology, and this is one of them. It reminds us that whenever we make technological progress we create other problems as a result of it.

The speed of technological progress today is so great that we have to think faster; we have to think further ahead and we have to act more swiftly than we have been used to in the past. In environmental matters technological advances often accelerate problems. For instance, there is the problem of pollution. Yet farsightedness and early remedial action can reduce the otherwise inevitable consequences. So it is with this threat to the freedom of the individual resulting from the very rapid progress in computer technology; and I think it is our job as political leaders to foster public debate of the issues involved, to further the education of the public and to see whether we can produce satisfactory answers to the problems with which we are confronted. I believe that we can.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, I have recently travelled in the United States. I visited some of the institutions responsible for computers and for using computers, and I was particularly impressed by the way some of the research institutions are using them. I have had the opportunity of discussing the future use of computers with a number of people, both in America and here, and particularly this problem of the protection of privacy. I have no hesitation in saying that I believe in computers: I am a computer man. I want to see the computer used and developed as an aid to man's thinking and planning. I can see, as so many other noble Lords can, the tremendous opportunities for furthering man's knowledge by harnessing the computer to take the drudgery out of calculations, and also to enable us to use models and simulations for the benefit of society. I want to see our whole statistical service revolutionised so that we have figures which are accurate, meaningful and, above all, up to date. It is absolutely staggering how out of date are so many of the figures on which we work.

I want to see the nation properly documented—I emphasise "properly"—so that we can identify such things as the areas of present poverty and potential poverty and get to work in good time on different methods of improving things. Above all, I want integrated decisions on some of the big, difficult sociological problems which face us. I believe that there is a tremendous amount to be done in the field of medicine. My noble friend Lord Amulree has pointed out to me that there are obvious advantages for both patient and doctor. If a patient changes his doctor or consultant, the results of previous tests and investigations may be made available quickly and in a comprehensive form by means of a print-out. This saves a great deal of duplication and much of the correspondence with which doctors and consultants are always burdened; and it eliminates the danger of damage or loss of bulky records. Yet to all intents and purposes, the information remains confidential.

I think that even in the patient-doctor relationship computerisation in medicine can be of immense value in the future. It might even result in saving or prolonging life. I was particularly interested to hear the other day (I know that other Members of your Lordships' House and another place have an interest in this) of the proposed research programme at Westminster Hospital where, if they can raise the modest sum of £20,000, they hope to use a computer associated with television to monitor conditions in a patient with coronary artery disease. This computer will allow them to analyse each successive heart beat and present the result in the wards sufficiently rapidly to keep pace with the changing conditions of the patient. Not only would this be good for the patient, but the hospital will learn a tremendous amount about what happens when a coronary is approaching.

The noble Baroness, Lady Summerskill, will correct me if I am wrong, but I am told that the heart beats, or it should do, 100,000 times a day. The analysis of heartbeats by modern methods would involve thousands of calculations and these can be done only by a computer of this sort. I believe that this is exciting work, but inevitably personal information will arise from the various experiments that go on in this field. I was reminded of the experience of the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, which he recounted in his speech to the World Assembly on Human Rights, when he said that he suffered for 14 years because something had got into his medical records which had been misinterpreted, either by insurance companies or by others. I must say that I have every sympathy, but I believe that there is a price which can be paid for this sort of thing, and also, if we are farsighted enough, we can build in the necessary protection in connection with the use of personal information so that that sort of experience is not normally repeated. Therefore I say that I want the computer. In fact, I should like to see a national data bank in existence, containing all the relevant information which a modern society needs for intelligent planning. But—and it is a big but—we must first devise and adopt reliable safeguards for the protection of the individual. This is not only vital; it is paramount. I think that the crux is: how to encourage the full use of the computer while protecting the freedom of the individual.

It is tempting to suggest that we should straight away pass a law on the subject. It is tempting to suggest that we should straight away appoint a Select Committee to find a solution. I doubt whether these are the right approaches. I believe that we should commission either an institute or a specially selected team to make an objective study in depth of the problems and of all the possible solutions. For all I know, the Government may already be doing this. There are problems in different fields: in the technical field, in the legal field, in the moral field and in the political field. When we have all the alternatives available and the proper approach to the different issues involved, then Parliament and the Government can make the political decisions which are needed.

I should like to emphasise that it is a political decision that is required. In a matter such as this Parliament cannot "pass the buck". There is a tendency for people to say: "Leave it to the programmers, to the manufacturers, to the people who handle these machines." This, to my mind, is wrong and unfair. This is a political decision, which must be taken against the most informed background we can produce; and it is for Parliament then to pronounce on this. That is why I say that a study in depth should precede any political action which we are called upon to take.

I have no doubt that our future planning can be a great deal more effective if we have the right statistics to work on. But if we have a National Data Bank, or anything like it, or a collection of banks, we must have a means of differentiating between statistics and personal information: because once there is access to personal information, the way is open to personal dossiers and their abuse. Up to now this sort of problem has been solved by the slowness with which the machine and the people operating it have dealt with the processing of such information as exists, by the restrictions which have been imposed on access to information, and also by the fact that information has not, within the last five years, been centralised. But all this will be changed in the second development decade if we use the technological information which is open to us. This is why we need to study the protection which can be made available.

We may well have to set up (I am not putting this forward as a proposal, but giving it as one of the issues to be decided) an independent Commission, under somebody of the calibre of a High Court Judge, which will be the vital arbiter as to who has access to information, what security measures are required by the Government, and who is to pronounce on the access that will be permitted on this very important subject. But we should remember, as the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, said, that the computer is a remarkable instrument and it is possible to include protection in the computer programmes themselves. We could, for instance, include in all programmes an instruction to the effect that certain information about people should not be divulged to anyone unless a code password or pass key belonging to the independent body was fed into the computer. This could be put on a data cycle. It is possible to operate devices that will automatically separate the names of people from their statistics, particularly on things like credit rating, crime and tax matters.

One protection which has already been mentioned, and which would be of vital importance, would be to insist that every individual was informed whenever it was proposed to use or divulge his personal data and of the purpose for which it was to be used. In fact it is possible to build into any computer programme an instruction that the individual, organisation or company is immediately to be informed, if information in the data bank has been extracted, of the person by whom it has been extracted and the time at which it was extracted. This cannot be difficult because this is the way computers are built. And this may be the best protection we can get against industrial and commercial espionage.

I do not believe that any of these problems are insoluble, but I think that a lot of hard thinking and great judgment have to be used in striking the right balance between the needs of society and the requirements of the individual. We can have as many statistics as we like, but we must recognise that at the point where a name and number become associated with the statistics then the personal dossier comes into being, and this is what can lead to George Orwell's 1984, unless we find a way of avoiding it in good time. I think that we ought to give a good deal of thought as to whether a National Data Bank needs to possess all the information available. For instance, there may well be some protection in having criminal statistics available on the basis that names are never associated with them on that particular computer programme. Credit information could be maintained in the data bank and in the joint stock banks and not used on a personal basis. The personal statistics could be there, but not associated with names or numbers.

One thing we should do is to define the statistics that are really needed for dealing with the planning problems of the future. I should think that there are few occasions on which these need to be reduced to a personal basis. What we want are facts and figures about age groups, population trends, consumption, production, and so on. During the coming decade, there will be much more use of models and simulation programmes to determine, before decisions are actually made, what are the likely effects. We shall be able to demonstrate quickly by the use of a computer what are the possible effects of making unintegrated decisions and what other options are available if we want to make a comprehensive decision.

There are a number of examples in America of this sort of thing. In one town, they put in a freeway which was fairly close to the town, and the immediate effect was that the middle class went to live about 30 or 40 miles out and left a desert in the middle of the town, without rateable value and revenue. This problem could be simulated on a computer, to see what the effect would be if such a decision were made; and that could be done before action was taken. That is what I believe we have to support, the idea of using the computer, which can be a magnificent tool in the right hands, for the benefit of society. But we must at all costs ensure proper protection for the privacy of the individual. We shall look forward to hearing from the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor the Government's view on this matter.

3.30 p.m.


My Lord, I am grateful, as I am sure are all noble Lords, to the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, for raising this matter this afternoon. I am personally grateful for his choice of date, since as a result this debate falls within my presidency of the British Computer Society and permits me to say something to your Lordships not only on my own behalf but also on what I believe to be the feelings of my fellow computing scientists. The British Computer Society, as often happens in modern technological societies, combines the functions of a learned society, pub-lishin a scientific journal, with the functions of a professional institution concerned with education and ethical standards. We are particularly concerned with ethical standards and we have set up our own working party to consider this matter. I should like to assure the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, that the whole sympathy of the computer scientists is with the potential victims of any misuse of their science. The potential victims and the scientists are on the one side, and the impersonal, hard-hearted administrative machine, which neither understands the techniques of the one nor sympathises with the needs of the other, is the common enemy.

I am not going to take up time with reciting a panegyric upon the use of computers, although computers have been, perhaps, the centre of my emotional life for the last twenty years. Some twenty years ago I found myself, as Managing Director of the National Research Development Corporation, virtually the sole means of channelling public money from the public purse to the computing industry, then in its period of gestation. May I, in parenthesis, say that it remains true now, as in the past—and it is one of the few generalisations about this fascinating subject which remains true—that after a brilliant period of gestation computers are now approaching their infancy.

After ten years of that work I thought that I was out of it, and lay fallow for a couple of years. But some six or seven years ago I found myself Chairman of the Software Committee which was set up by the Science Research Council, and this particular subject has been my personal concern for the last seven years. The subject has attained a new level of achievement, on the one hand, or approached a new level of difficulty or even embarrassment, on the other. For we have the accomplishment of what is called multi-access computation—that is to say, that you have one computer with a large number of people working into it, and not one of them knows that the others exist.

Arising out of this has come the need for file security. It would be disastrous if one person wrote something into another person's file. In the case of a written document, if anybody alters it an expert can tell that that document has been altered. The document may be merely expunged, as they did in the Middle Ages, or have a line drawn through it, as later, or the ink may be scratched out with a knife and something overwritten; but there is always a trace left. In the case of a magnetic mark on a tape no trace is left. A particular dot, or bit, as it is sometimes called, can be written and overwritten many times without leaving a trace. So it is impossible to find out whether something has been overwritten or not, and it is necessary to have a security system to make sure that it is not.

It is extremely important not to get starry-eyed about the security provided by the security system. These systems can be beaten, but the kind of proposition which runs, "the system cannot be beaten" has the same logical status as the proposition which says: "I have forgotten nothing"—because it is obvious that if I had, I would not know that I had forgotten it. The great overload facility for the British universities at Chilton, known as the Atlas Laboratory, where one of the six Atlas computing machines —which were of most enormous credit to this country in the days when they were young—is installed, recently acquired a very large disc file, and then a satellite computer, together with 16 on-line consoles, some of which are in Oxford and some at the Chilton Laboratory. These enable people to communicate direct on line, simultaneously, apparently, with the Atlas computer.

I was Chairman of the Atlas Computer Laboratory Management Committee during the six months when we set up the file security and were trying to break it. There was, of course, nothing improper in doing this; the people who had designed the security system had an open invitation to break it if they could. They broke it over and over again, but with decreasing frequency. There was an occasion when I was at the laboratory playing with the thing myself, and somebody actually broke it and interfered with what I was doing while I was doing it. That was a personal reminder to me that one ought not to get starry-eyed about the efficacy of these security systems.

With your Lordships' permission, I should like to quote a remarkable person on this subject who would, I think, highly commend herself to noble Ladies in this House, because it can be but rarely that a member of their sex achieves the distinction of being both a professor in an American university and a Commander in the United States Navy. I refer to Doctor, as I first knew her, then Professor and now Commander Grace Hopper, the doyenne of software in computer use, who has been writing difficult higher-order software from a time to which the memory of computers runs not to the contrary. We were discussing this very problem in connection with her status as consultantin-chief to the United States Navy. She made two statements to me that I have her permission to quote to your Lordships this afternoon.

The first is that these systems are proliferating throughout the United States everywhere, and not one of them has not been beaten within six months by somebody clever enough to do it. Of course, an amateur could not, but the man who designs the system, or his assistant, can usually break it if he tries hard enough. The second is that she has persuaded the United States Departments which rely on her for advice to grant every member of every public department who has records on a computer an automatic right of print-out. Anybody whose records are kept on a computer has an unqualified right at any time to say: "I want to see what the computer says about me." So if anything happens to change his status he knows that the computer has a record of it and can demand a print-out in intelligible form while there is time for human memory to be still available to correct the thing if it is wrong.

In all matters where the computer is going to be the interface between man and the machine—and I do not care whether it is a physical engineering machine in a workshop, or an administrative machine, or a social machine—we must be prepared to invest a little extra money in a soft-sell. You cannot send people to prison because the computer says so; there has to be a better reason than that. This soft-sell has got to come from running the conventional system and the computerised system in parallel, at some extra cost, long enough for people to gain confidence in the system. This, with the right of print-out, will, I think, gradually make people accept the new way of going about things. In other words, we are not entering a phase of the computerisation of everything; we are entering an intermediate phase in which the two systems must be run in parallel for long enough for everybody to gain confidence in both.

There is another matter which I think is essential, and that is that the administrator cannot have it both ways. If matters are to be kept secret, then they must be kept by the conventional system; if they are to be put on a computer, then there must be a right of print-off. We cannot mix the two. There are, of course, certain matters which it is very proper to keep secret. The whole system of references and referees depends on security between the referee and the potential employer to whom the reference is addressed. If a man applies for a job and gives references, and those references are taken up, they must remain confidential as between the referee and the future employer, for the very simple reason that nobody will give references if, on those occasions when bad references are given, they are landed with a personal embarrassment through breach of confidence. Therefore references must not go on the computer. And there may be other records which should not go on the computer.

At this stage of our knowledge nothing should go on a computer unless we are prepared to grant the person to whom the computer records relate the right of print-out. The same applies to what I might call inter-Ministerial data transfers —and I do not mean those as between Ministers, but as between Ministries. I do not think one Ministry should have automatic right of access to the data files of another except by authorisation at some appropriate level, possibly at the level of the Minister himself. I do not see why the Minister of Education needs to know that somebody has been to prison unless he is applying for a job as a schoolmaster, in which case, if there are records about these matters kept at the Home Office, the Home Secretary's permission would have to be obtained for a particular piece of information to be available—not in general, but in particular terms—to the Ministry that asks for it.

If your Lordships will think of it as some kind of principle which could almost be added to the list of human rights, then one of the basic human rights should be: "No secret information on a computer, and right of print-out for the person to whom the computer records relate". These, I believe, are basic freedoms which are necessary for all those who might easily become the victims of mistakes, let alone malice, unless we take precautions against it.

3.41 p.m.


My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, for his speech, and for providing us with this opportunity to debate this most important subject, I would ask his and your Lordships' indulgence if, while dealing with computers, I deal also with technological methods of obtaining the information that goes into the computers. The methods have now become a matter of urgent—I repeat "urgent"— public interest, because of a recent technological invasion of the right to fair trial, and the threatening of the machinery of justice. I am not going to elaborate on that matter, but what I have to say has a very distinct bearing, both upon recent events, and upon the problem we are discussing to-day.

I am delighted to follow the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, because I want to reinforce many of the things he said. This whole matter we are discussing today is something of world concern. In March, 1968, I delivered a paper, to which the noble Lord, Lord Byers, referred, on this subject to the World Assembly of Human Rights in Montreal. This became the subject of a resolution sent forward to the Inter-Governmental Conference on Human Rights at Teheran last year. That Conference instructed the United Nations to undertake an investigation of the technological threat to human rights. I have been asked to join in that investigation, and shall be doing so at the beginning of next year.

The noble Lord, Lord Byers, referred to George Orwell's 1984. My Lords, 1984 is already here: all the components of George Orwell's sinister account of how The Machine enabled "Big Brother" to dominate people's lives and minds already exist; they have only to be assembled. In the meantime, we are being conditioned to their use. We are being hypnotised by innovation, bedazzled by gadgets. We are being bamboozled by what Orwell called, "newspeak" and "double-think". "Rights" are being claimed to justify "wrongs". Unscrupulous methods are being justified (and we have had a recent instance of this) because they are supposed to expose unscrupulousness.

I have on many occasions attacked "the tyranny of the dossier": the secret record, official or unofficial, in which the information is unchallenged—is not printed out, as the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, asks us to do with the computer—and, indeed, is unchallengeable. The individual concerned does not know that it exists, and has no means of rebuttal. To-day the electronic computer has the capacity to compile a dossier on every man, woman and child in the community, with total recall of every childhood illness, every adolescent indiscretion, and every instance of adult nonconformity—the envigilation of every aspect of an individual's life.

It is all very persuasive, my Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Byers, has emphasised, as the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, did before him, the great advantages—which I reinforce—to be gained from the use of the computer. But we must be aware of very serious and imminent dangers. Why should we not have a glorified electronic Somerset House, a central data bank, a Master Memory, in which information can be as detailed and useful as possible? That phrase, "as detailed and useful as possible", was used in justification of a United States' proposal to combine the records of over twenty Government organisations in one system. My Lords, I ask, "Useful to whom?" Let us consider what could happen in Britain. With our National Health Service, one could have a complete dossier, recalling one's childhood—infantile measles, that incipient tuberculosis at sixteen, the last filling or bridge which the dentist put in, the nervous breakdown that one had when one was jilted, and so on. One could have the prescription for one's spectacles—everything could be there.

Alongside would be one's police record, including the fingerprints innocently given when applying for a security job; the licence endorsement earned because one was caught going up a one-way street, and so forth. Also there would be the secret dossier compiled when the security officers checked on the security application; when they questioned the neighbours, or the girl friend, as to why she did the jilting. Included, too, would be one's picture, either from a passport photograph or from a casual camera; and one's eavesdropped conversations. So would your employment record, including the time you had a row with the boss and walked out; your social status, including the house mortgage, bank account, income tax returns, your clubs and political associations (including the accidental ones that you never knew about) and your educational record and so on.

Of course, all this information could be obtained anyway; and individually, and in itemised form, much of it is not at all sinister. Indeed, as has been said, it would be quite valuable if a hospital casualty officer could dial the National Health Service computer and obtain an account of the patient's medical history. It might even prevent the casualty officer from giving me a particular pain-killer to which I am dangerously allergic. Dental fillings might be used to identify the corpse, and the optical prescription for spectacles to identify the spectacles found at the scene of the crime. Each item could in itself be completely harmless; but out of context, or in different conjunctions, it could be enormously dangerous.

What I have warned about would be a king-size dossier, an imperial-size dossier. However factual, a data-bank accumulation cannot be more than an identikit, a caricature, of any individual. Forgotten illnesses, transactions, associates, job-severance, and the like, could have different meanings in different circumstances. When, during the war, I had accidental access to my police dossier under the old system (and I can assure your Lordships that we will still have accidental access under the computer system), I read it with absolute fascination. I thought, "What a sinister, exciting, character this fellow Calder must have been! I wish I had known him." One episode, the real circumstances of which I had practically forgotten because they were so unimportant, assumed the glamour and deviousness of a really exciting James Bond. But I did not recognise myself, and could have given completely simple explanations of incidents which had acquired suspicious significance.

Let me give an example of the kind of thing which can happen—and I apologise if I have given this instance before in your Lordships' House. Some years ago —in fact, twenty years ago—I was at a non-Governmental Conference, the World Power Congress, in Belgrade. We were discussing energy requirements, and the Congress was attended by distinguished scientists from both sides of the Iron Curtain—I think it was almost the first time that both sides had attended. During the coffee break one day a group, including the late Sir John Cockcroft, Emeleanov, the Russian, a top-ranking American and others, were having an uninhibited conversation. Hovering around the group was someone who looked extremely familiar, and whom I presently recognised as an American Secret Service man I had known during the war.

I went over and introduced myself. I said, "That's a nice tie you're wearing, Pat", and flipped his tie. Sure enough, there it was—a microphone underneath. I frisked his side pocket and there was a recording machine, no bigger than a paper-back book. I took him aside and said: "Who listens to all those millions of miles of tape recordings that you are building up? How can you sort it out? How can you decide what is really significant? How can you identify, with certainty, the voices? You cannot say, 'That's Sir John Cockcroft'. My only consolation," I said to him, "is that you cannot. Nobody can. There is too much of it."

To-day, my Lords, that is no longer true: All this information is fed into the computer. Something like 15,000 agents of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States (I am not giving away official secrets; it is not even secret) are feeding information into what is tantamount to a kitchen blender. All the information is going into a computer. which is churning it up and turning it into something which is supposed to be data information. And then, of course, they cannot discover where the curious smell came from. It is coded nowadays, so that if any one wanted a total recall of Sir John Cockcroft in the incident I referred to, it could be retrieved. Cockcroft might be saying, "You know, Emeleanov, you and I have a lot in common. We must get together. I might be able to give you a few tips." They might have been talking about carnation growing. But, out of context and in a hostile political atmosphere, it would sound sinister or even intended treason.

In the old days one had some comfort in the thought that, however thorough the collection of information for a dossier might be, there were certain inescapable limitations. Walls still gave some privacy in the home; distance was still some protection, and size made methods of acquiring and storing information either conspicuous or excessive. Those safeguards of privacy and of human rights no longer exist. Miniaturisation has now reduced electronic devices to concealable proportions. I think that all of us at any time, at any moment, at the drop of a hat, become thoroughly indignant about the tapping of telephone lines. But we have moved a long way from the days when I was, euphemistically, "under police protection" of De Valera in Dublin during the Blueshirt troubles in the 'thirties, and I was telephoning my newspaper from my hotel bedroom. I could hear a breathing on the line and guessed that my detective —the man who was following me—was listening in. I stopped and said, "By the way, Macguire, are you getting all this down?" And a voice on the line said, "Surentogawd, no, Mr. Calder, I am not. Would you mind going a wee bit slower!"

Modern tapping devices are much more sophisticated. One can stick them on the base of a telephone like a piece of chewing gum, or tune in on a conversation from a distance by induction; and those devices are not restricted to the police, whose activities we can at least try to circumscribe through the Home Secretary. To-day, with tiny match-head transistors, one can have a listening post concealed in a cocktail olive, fitted into a lamp socket, or concealed in the upholstery of a car. Stethoscopic microphones can be stuck by suction on a wall to pick up conversations in an adjoining room. As I mentioned once before in your Lordships' House, it is now possible for microscopic receivers to be fitted into the filling of a tooth or supplied as a dental plate. That Belgrade secret-service man to-day would not use anything so clumsy as a microphone under the tie. He would have a tie-pin microphone or a wrist-watch microphone. In fact, at one time when I was travelling in the Arctic I had a wrist-watch microphone; and it was very convenient because my hands could not write and I was able to dictate to myself—but it was to myself, not to somebody else, not even to a distinguished newspaper.

"Bugging" (as the term is) is no longer confined to attachments in rooms. You can have a "walking bug". In fact, when I was trying to evolve this phrase I wondered what the proper name for a "walking bug" or a "human bug" would be. But this is much worse, in my opinion, than wire tapping, because none of us knows what indiscreet remark or observation, which could be misconstrued, is being picked up by the person next to us. There are long-range directional microphones, sound telescopes, which can pick up conversation from a distance. There are Polaroid windows behind which people can sit unobserved and clearly observe others without their knowing that they are being observed—the modern version of the Judas window. This is the age of the casual camera photographing people without their knowledge. This may provide fun and games for television programmes, but its snooping uses are not at all funny. There are infra-red cameras photographing in the dark; there are "Peeping Tom" cameras (which I notice were used in a recent incident) which from a distance zoom in on our private lives the way that U.2 'planes and observation satellites spy on military installations of other countries.

I should like, with your Lordships' indulgence, to say something about tapes because this is rather important in terms of transferring to computers. I would remind your Lordships that pictures can now be transferred to magnetic tapes and stored in a computer memory, just as sound records can. I have had a good deal of experience—for perfectly innocent reasons, I assure you—in the manipulation and doctoring of tapes; and from that experience I should want to see evidence obtained on tapes banned for ever as substantive evidence in a court of law. I insist that, even when used for the best of motives, tapes are entirely untrustworthy. Most of your Lordships who use tapes for dictation know, sometimes with humiliation at the way you swallow your words, how words become garbled. This week I was taping a memorandum which referred to the Government's setting up a joint committee—on metrication, by the way—and it came out in the transcript as a "giant committee". I know that your Lordships are going to say that super Ministries should have super committees; but it was not "giant"; it was "joint". Therefore, in the most scrupulous circumstances, disembodied evidence is in my opinion entirely unreliable. I could elaborate at length on this point, but I repeat that tapes can be doctored.

I should like to give your Lordships an example of how the past tense can be transferred to the future tense on tape. I was on an expedition in the Arctic, and was picked up off an island in the remote Arctic by a Hastings of the Royal Air Force and flown over the Pole. I thought, as I was doing, among other things, recordings for the B.B.C. and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, that it would be a good idea if I simply did the story of how you find the Pole. Many people describe the Pole that is there, describe what the Pole looks like, but this time I thought it would be rather interesting to describe how one would find the Pole. So I put the microphone of my tape recorder in the ear-hole of my flying helmet, and of course got the entire conversation on the inter-com between the pilot, the astro, the navigator and so on, as they were moving and converging on the Pole. It was rather exciting.

But, having got it, I realised that it was unintelligible. Unless one explained what it was they were talking about, one was using a "gobbledegook." So I went back into the Hastings and I recorded the chief navigator explaining what in fact it was they were talking about. Then, when I got back to Edmonton to prepare the programme, I realised that the only way it could conceivably finish was on the Pole itself. That is to say, one did not go back and say, "What they were talking about was so-and-so." I discovered that the navigator had been speaking, of course, in the past tense, saying what we had been doing.

I was prepared to throw the whole thing away and think of a new idea when the engineer of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation said "This is silly; we can move the whole of this into the future". We did it, and I only wish I could give your Lordships a demonstration. I thought of doing it, but that would be a gimmick, unworthy of your Lordships' House. It can be done simply by the transposition of phrases, and in that way we were able, without adding one word or putting any words into the navigator's mouth, to transfer the whole thing from the past tense to the future.

I insist that it is possible to do this in many other ways. This kind of thing, with all the hazards to human rights, can be stored in computers unbeknown and uncontradicted by those whose interests are involved. One must add to this the fact that computer storage capacity nowadays is almost unlimited. With modern miniaturisation, cubic metres can be reduced to cubic millimetres. The bulk of the glass thermionic valve is cut down to the pinhead of the transistor; the drawing room console to the pocket receiver. Present-day technology permits the embodiment of 100 to 500 integrated circuits on a silicon wafer 2½2 centimetres in diameter (you will notice, my Lords, that I am saying "2½ centimetres" and not referring to inches, because I am the Chairman of the Metrication Board) and less than a millimetre thick, or a complete computer and communications system containing more than 1,000 circuits—and I repeat, 1,000 circuits—can be embodied in a disc no bigger than a lop coin. Your Lordships will also notice that I have not referred to the "florin".

In the realm of machine memories, an eight-coloured laser beam can store 100 million bits of information on 2½ centimetres of photographic film. The equivalent of a library of 20,000 volumes can be stored on an 8 by 10 sheet of nickel foil. With cryogenics, that is freezing at Absolute Zero or, as we say in the Metrication Board, at Kelvin Zero, it would be possible to store all the information in all the libraries of all the world—the British Museum, the Library of Congress, the Bibliothéque Nationale, and so on—in a cubic capacity less than that of the human cranium.

All the computer memories could be linked together by satellite telecommunications—an "instant Interpol". Think, my Lords, of the opportunities for abuse by authority! Here is what Herman Kahn and Anthony J. Wiener say in their book The Year 2000. They are referring to things which exist today: A capability for listening and recording temporarily (or even permanently) can be made very inexpensively. One can imagine the legal or illegal magnetic or other recording of an appreciable percentage of all telephone conversations. The same technique could be applied to 'bugged' conversations in bars, restaurants, offices and so on. It would then be possible to scan rapidly these conversations … For simple computers,"— they are not talking about the Master Minds, they are talking about the simple computers— the criteria would be certain words—underworld jargon, obscenities, or words such as 'bet' 'horse race', 'kill', 'subvert', 'revolution', 'infiltrate', 'Black Power', 'organise', 'oppose' … You pick up these key words and then land your victim. Why should not Kahn and Weiner go on to include "human rights", "peace", "United Nations", or whatever you like? By this method every anti-anything, every informer, every common mob could feed the master mind with intelligence or, in certain circumstances, draw upon it. Every mischief-maker could have his own transistorised, computerised, do-it-yourself C.I.A. kit.

Computer experts make reassuring noises, and I really was encouraged that the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, was not making the reassuring noises that one might have expected, not from the Earl of Halsbury as an individual, but from the Chairman of the Computer Society. It is not something about which we can have any comfort or any reassurance at this moment. Some people say that the Master Memory could be made secure against access by unauthorised persons, but I would say, with great deference to the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, that I am not in the least impressed by what has been said about I.B.M. I do not accept the technological security of these systems, and I doubt whether anyone ever would. I do not deny that they go to an enormous extent in trying to arrive at some solution; but I do not accept that, ultimately, one can get this system so secure technologically that even those safeguards which the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, said he wanted can be guaranteed. I would endorse every one of them, but I want a great deal more built into the computer protection than that.

I would follow the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, and say that we ought to make it quite clear in terms of public records that what in fact is private, in the ultimate sense of the personal, should be printed out for the person concerned, or be maintained under the old system. As I said on the television programme on this whole subject, I hope that this great computer—this Master Mind, this National Data Bank, and all the other things that are being proposed—will have its own built-in self-destroying system and remember to blow itself up when a new Hitler takes over.

4.7 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, for introducing this Motion. I see that he is moving for Papers; perhaps it would have been more appropriate for him to move for magnetic tapes. In fact, in about ten years' time we may be able to do that, and it will be easy to wheel them in on a trolley, but I hope no noble Lord will ask for a print-out!

I was fascinated to listen to the speech made by the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, and although I was in the computer industry myself for a time he has taught me a number of new things. I was glad to find that the advances in the computer industry are going along what I take to be very orthodox and promising lines. In my opinion, the whole question of the use of computers for information purposes must be put into perspective. I find certain aspects of the matter alarming, but I also find in other ways that computers are in fact fitting in with the accepted codes of behaviour. For example, in current accounting, where personal bank accounts are dealt with, banking ethics are fully applied and understood.

What is it, then, that we are alarmed about? I believe that basically we are alarmed about the computer becoming the master of our futures, whereas it should be the slave to our desires. The computer is not a viable being; it is merely a machine doing what it is told. That, I am sure, my Lords, has been said many times before; and though computers are said to be capable of thought, they are capable of modifying their own programmes only according to set instructions. All this is quite controllable, and I personally do not believe that computers will take charge. Always they have to be given a man-made instruction. However, because we are only just beginning to scratch the surface on the soft-wear of computers rather than the hard-wear, it seems to me that we must now pay much more attention to the ground rules of their operation, and I think that in practice it is this which really concerns us more than anything else. Having codes is one thing, and having appropriate legal remedies against their misuse is another. I believe more of the first means less of the second.

It has been possible in the past to keep a fairly watchful eye on the practices of Government Departments and private bodies in regard to the use of information, but this is becoming more and more difficult to do. Only this afternoon we had an example of trying to find out what is going on in the Post Office these days. A short while ago we had a Post Office Data Processing Bill which we went through very thoroughly, and I should like to pay tribute to the Post Office for the way they have set up their computer operations. In the past I have been closely connected with this. I have understood what they have done, and I think that even now they are paying great attention to the rights of access of individuals to their computer sytem and are paying great attention to the internal checks and security which they must apply to the machines.

In the past a transfer of information from one place to another involved some physical or visible process. That does not apply now, with computers that can talk to each other in private and can be remotely interrogated. Unless you are intimately connected with the management or operation of these so-called "word shunters" or "number crunchers", you have no idea what is going on inside them. Clearly and understandably there is a danger that they can be misused, and we are, I think, at present unsure that professional standards and existing codes of practice cater sufficiently well for them.

Essentially, I think the most important thing is for any codes of practice or enactments not to inhibit the carrying out of normally acceptable functions and business transactions by placing ridiculous, time-consuming and costly checks on what are considered to be no more than routine tasks or mere formalities. The greatest fear is that highly private information given by individuals in the health and security field is transmitted to other Government Departments for entirely different purposes, without the individual's consent or knowledge. Statistically such information may be of great use in long-term national planning, and the individual may benefit considerably from its being used in this way, but the information involved is not usually the sort of information that one is in any way compelled to give, except perhaps in the case of censuses. It is usually information given voluntarily on a privileged occasion, as one might give it to a banker, solicitor, doctor or any other professional person governed by codes of practice.

One is protected by professional codes and practices and by some regulations, but one has to be very careful indeed, these days, particularly where credit rating and status is involved. For example, it is not uncommon to have to give highly personal information in seeking life insurance, and most of the questions asked are probably quite pertinent ones, but life insurance proposal forms are laid out in such a way that the information can be fed into a computer. One has no way of knowing whether it is or whether it is not, even though one may not take out a policy.

It is the declaration at the bottom of the form which interests me most of all. In one case that I know of this ends by authorising the company: to make inquiries of any office to which you have at any time made a proposal for life insurance and the giving of such information. How does one know what "such information" might be? It could be anything. If you sign the form, you make a pretty sweeping authorisation to the company. I know that if I signed such a form I should probably first specify that the information I give would be solely for the purposes of assessing the terms of the proposed policy, and, secondly, I would only authorise the giving of information relating to that which I had myself previously given to another company on their own particular proposal form. One might say that if one gave the information in verse one could at least copyright it; but that may not be possible at all. Presumably there already exists a traffic in information in insurance circles; but with the use of computers and the linking of insurance companies to banking and credit card networks it seems to me that privacy perhaps is not so privileged as it used to be.

One of the most simple cases of transferring information without an individual's knowledge is, of course, the sale of mailing lists, where an individual and his address are linked. So far as I am aware, there is no bar to this type of purchase or sale. It need not in fact be just this; other private details could be traded as well not necessarily acquired in privileged circumstances, but I think the main point is that information given under privileged circumstances and which is not normally available from public sources should not be misused as a result of being machine handled, and this is what I think this debate is about.

I want to refer to one other aspect of the information business, and that is the data bank, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Byers. This term, data bank, is used in the United States and is defined in American dictionaries, but not in British ones. It is, I think, a misnomer, at least at the moment, to us. It has nothing to do with the deposit of money, but is used to denote a mechanised data deposit. These "stores" can deal with vast amounts of information which are available on random access; and by "random access" I mean that one can get the information out by pointing at the position in the core store where you know it to lie, rather than having to search in a sequential manner right through the memory. So far as I am aware, in the United Kingdom anybody can establish a mechanised information store. No licence is needed to operate them. Such stores have nothing to do with banks, and general information handling is not governed by banking codes or practices relating to customer information.

Mechanised storage of personal records is attractive, like the mechanised current accounting, which the banks use to great advantage; but I think that our fears are in respect of a national personal records store, or indeed regional ones. It makes no real difference, I think, whether you are talking about a national store or regional stores, because computers speak to each other so easily these days. Information could be retrieved or shunted from one place to another at the drop of a hat, for all sorts of purposes, authorised and unauthorised. Clearly, in operating data banks or stores along these lines the Department of Health and Social Security is most involved, and adequate safeguards are needed to cover statistical needs, medical needs, to prevent unauthorised use and to prevent, also, the accumulation of incorrect or unsubstantiated information.

It has been mentioned that one safeguard should be the right to check information held, but my own view is that such a right should not be too cheaply traded for the most important working principle in any system; that is, knowing that in the quest for higher efficiency through the use of mechanised storage and retrieval systems the individual's right to privacy is completely safeguarded. I think it is worth recalling here the Service custom, at least in the Navy, as I know it, where a man is allowed to see the official and original copy of his personal record once a year for the purposes of checking its correctness and to request that action may be taken to investigate any discrepancies. The sort of information that appears is not only where he has served but what his conduct is; what his misdemeanours are, and, in the old days (I do not know whether it applies now) whether he had had venereal disease or not. These are private matters. The point here is that in the case of records held for those in the Armed Services (and so far as I am aware, in the R.A.F. for example, these are held on a computer nowadays; in the Navy I do not think this is so, and in the Army only pay is held on a computer) there is I think no civil law remedy for dealing with discrepancies and misuse, and therefore in these cases there should be rights of access.

But so long as private individuals are assured that personal information voluntarily given to Government Departments is restricted to the use of that Department for the proper purposes for which it was provided, then there will not be much public apprehension and there can always be a civil remedy for misuse. It may be that we need more civil remedies; at the moment, we rely on a number of existing enactments to deal with these situations when they arise. The establishment and maintenance of standards related to mechanised storage and retrieval is highly important. Developments in the use of computers—that is to say, the softwear—are only just beginning; there is no end in sight at the moment. And, having listened to the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, I think everybody will agree with this. But I dread to think of the time when the private individual may once a year have to queue to look at his personal record at some Ministry or other, to see that the Government have correct tabs on it. Let us, on the other hand, work towards getting the ground rules right so that we remain masters of the computer and do not become its slaves.

4.20 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, upon introducing a Motion which a first sight might appear to raise a rather narrow aspect of the total effect of computers on our society, but which, in depth, is of far-reaching importance, as I think the course of this debate has already shown.

I cannot add much to the authoritative words of the three preceding speakers, but I have tried to obtain some indication of the scale of the problem. This has been given in a survey undertaken by Scientific Control Systems, Ltd. for the General Post Office within the last few months. From this survey, it appears that there are already available here computer memory stores with random access capable of storing 1½ billion characters, equal to approximately 5 million separate records, at equipment costs of between £150 and £500 for each 5,000 records. It is also estimated that the number of terminals installed in the United Kingdom capable of communicating with these stores was 3,000 in March, 1968. The number is expected to rise to 5,000 in the current year, to 50,000 in 1973, and to 250,000 in 1978.

As the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, said, we are approaching the time when records could be maintained on a computer relating to almost every aspect of the life of a private citizen from birth to death—a complete personal dossier; and not merely a print-out, but a display on a screen. My own limited experience is that those who are immediately concerned with the development and management of data-processing systems are the most acutely aware of the potential dangers to the liberty of the citizen. The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, has spoken in this sense this afternoon, on behalf of the British Computer Society.

One's first impression is that these dangers are being overstated and overstressed. After all, personal records of all kinds are already kept in many forms—police records, health and hospital records, and personal records in both the public and the private sector. Banks, credit-service companies and other financial and credit institutions abound. Access to these records can be obtained in appropriate circumstances, and though in most cases they are rightly used, they can be misused if they are in the control or within the knowledge of unscrupulous persons. Therefore, prima facie the greater availability of information of this character through data banks or, accepting Lord Ironside's formulation, mechanised information stores, does not change the situation except in degree. I3ut of course it takes considerable effort and persistence to get at most of the existing records. The present system is inherently inefficient, so much so that it has been said that this inefficiency in itself provides protection to the individual—what has been called the protection of the manilla envelope or file.

The question, therefore, is whether the change in the degree of efficiency of data-processing systems and the practicability of immediate access to comprehensive information about an individual, partnership or firm, is so dramatic as to be regarded not just as a change in degree but as the creation of a completely new situation. When I was searching for an analogy to help in answering this question it occurred to me that the development of bombs was much in point. For a long time, the increase in power of conventional bombs was regarded as the normal improvement of an accepted weapon of war—unpleasant, of course, but not different in kind. And a certain protection was afforded by the inherent inefficiency of bombing, and the ability of those attacked to ensconce themselves in a bombproof shelter—the counterpart of the manilla envelope. Then came the nuclear bomb. Immediately the public refused to accept that even the first nuclear bomb was "just another weapon"; and this view was vastly strengthened by the advent of the thermonuclear weapon. Special measures have been accepted by international agreement to deal with this entirely new situation. I think I am satisfied that the advent of data banks on the scale which is anticipated involves a similar change in an existing situation.

The question is, whether the instant accessibility to comprehensive information about an individual or firm will lower the standards governing access to such information and impair its confidentiality. I believe that the threat is of two kinds: first, the use or misuse of information assembled by a number of Government agencies and departments and brought together in one dossier; secondly, the use or misuse of information gathered by private credit or information companies or falling into the hands of individuals. A specific case is that of medical records already being put on computer. If, for example, these reveal some disability such as a psychiatric disturbance in early life, this would have a devastating effect on the possibility of the individual's securing employment in later life.

As noble Lords have pointed out, the information can, in practice, be safeguarded by a system of coding which prevents access to any person who does not know the code. But however good the system, I doubt whether there would be much confidence in this form of protection. On the plus side, centralised computerisation of police records must improve the efficiency of police detection, and therefore benefit the community.

The available and relative cheapness of data storage in itself offers great temptation to acquire a vast mass of statistics and information—an almost unlimited opportunity to apply Parkinson's Law. Much of this information is likely to be unnecessary or irrelevant, but it could still be misused or misinterpreted by those who, according to the old saying, use statistics like a drunken man uses a lamp post, for support rather than for illumination.

Quite apart from unauthorised or malicious use of information, there is always the possibility of error. I am informed that a mechanical breakdown in a computer is uncommon, and that if it occurs the results are normally so wild that little harm may be done. On the other hand, mistakes in programming and input can lead to errors much more difficult to detect. Take the development of the credit service industry in the United States. Already, I believe it may be impossible for an individual or firm to get any credit anywhere. Yet this disability may be based on inaccurate or misleading information; and at some point in the process the human being has to tell the computer whether Mr.X is or is not creditworthy.

So far as the Government are concerned, noble Lords interested in science fiction, if there are such, may have heard of a book called The Great Computer, reputed to have been written under a pseudonym by the well-known Swedish physicist, Alfven. It is a retrospective view of development up to the point at which computers finally take over the management of society. It recounts how, as computerisation proceeds over the years, industrial workers, universities and schools, the legal profession, the Health Service, and Parliament itself, progressively become superfluous as the computer assumes their functions. All that is left is the bureaucracy which is still needed to service and maintain the computers. And when the system breaks down, as in the book it does, the cause is an inter-departmental conflict.

Science fiction apart, all this points to the need for safeguards, and I think the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, has done a service by tabling his Personal Records (Computers) Bill, which suggests the form which these safeguards might take. On the face of it, these appear to be reasonable, but I am not competent to assess the difficulties involved in legislation on this matter, and there may indeed be great difficulties, especially in definition. But I have no doubt that the Government have been considering this problem, and this debate gives them an opportunity of telling the House how far they have got. The development of data banks is proceeding at such a pace that consideration is urgent since action cannot be long delayed. The effect of these developments may be both practical and psychological. In practical terms, the present law of confidence or confidentiality is not, I believe, defined sufficiently to be clear and precise. The rights of the individual whose records are placed on a computer arc not clear. Secondly, inaccurate, incomplete or irrelevant information may be stored and used, and the individual may not be aware of it.

From the psychological point of view, unless these fears can be set at rest and safeguards devised, the knowledge that personal information is to be recorded may not only be profoundly disturbing, but may lead an individual to act unnaturally "for the record". The acquisition of more information may lead organisations, including even the Government, to be guided by an accumulation of fact rather than by value judgment. Whether anything can be done to control the accumulation of superfluous information is another matter. Some wag has said that the final solution to the problem of exponentially increasing amounts of data is to record them only on computers and to instruct the machines to erase at random 75 per cent. of their memory banks every so often. Self control rather than regulation or legislation may be the only possibility here.

Having identified some of the risks inherent in the explosive advance of data processing systems, it is, I think, important not to become, or allow others to become, emotionally involved in this issue. A calm assessment of the risks, and of the possible legal safeguards is needed, and in due course maybe appropriate legislation or regulation must be introduced. But the risks should not be exaggerated, nor is it reasonable to expect that remedies should be absolutely foolproof.

There is a tendency in many fields to overstress the dangers to our society involved in the speed of technological innovation. I think the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, was rather spine-chilling this afternoon in this respect, and I was glad to hear the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, say that the introduction of his Motion was in no way concerned to limit the progressive development of computers. But, my Lords, resistance to-day builds up to almost any technological advance, whether it be a roll-on, roll-off dock, an automated coal mine, a supersonic aircraft, or a badly needed airport. The beginnings of an anti-technological revolution are everywhere to be discerned. Let us not forget, my Lords, in the context of this debate, that the electron is man's best friend since the horse. Like a horse, it must be tamed, and not allowed to get out of control. But it must also be improved and encouraged for the benefit of, and in the service of, our society.

4.35 p.m.


My Lords, I too should like to join the other speakers in thanking the noble Lord. Lord Windlesham, for introducing this quite fascinating debate. It rather makes me fear to tread where so many with so much knowledge have spoken. I was particularly taken by the analogy of the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, of the atom bomb; the story of the bomb escalating into the atom bomb and creating a completely new situation. The advent of the computer, the scale at which it is now and what it can do, is an equally fundamental change in human society. To that I would add a third, the discovery of the genetic code, and the possibility of its manipulation in the inheritance factor which the human race transmits to its succeeding generations.

Laws are established to safeguard the rights both of the individual and of the State. Sometimes we are perhaps inclined to forget that the State also has rights when we fear for the protection of the individual. It is because of the importance of both sides that I want to make a plea for action soon, and that it should not be delayed as long as the noble Lord, Lord Byers, suggests, waiting for a Royal Commission to investigate.


My Lords, if the noble Lord will allow me to interrupt, the one thing I did not ask for was a Royal Commission. I asked for a team to study it in depth, not a Select Committee or a Royal Commission.


My Lords, I apologise for making that mistake. By and large, laws are based on the concept of property, things; and that goes for the intangible paper ones which are not really intangible at all, such as banking, because they are fundamentally based on actual property. That is why the analogy of the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, is so absolutely correct; it is because they are not material things in the same way. The field of information utilities gives us a completely new set of problems. We owe a great deal to these information utilities, and it is absolutely clear that we cannot, as a nation, progress without them. An increasing number of technicians have to work them, and these technicians will welcome the safeguards round the use of these utilities. They are asking for them now.

I was as horrified as other noble Lords by the instances given by the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, about things which can be fed into the computer with disastrous results when they are spewed out at the other end; how this can come about either deliberately or by human error, and how vital it is that this access in order to falsify be guarded against, and that those who look after the computers, who run them, should be men of the highest integrity. The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, said, if I understood him aright, that he hoped that secret information would not be recorded. My difficulty in following the noble Earl on that point is that of defining what would be secret information; and who would decide what was secret information.

I was most interested in Lord Ritchie-Calder's report of what is happening in America about the printing out of information to the person concerned— and this, of course, is included in the Bill which the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, introduced last July. But I think we must pause for a moment and think of the effect of printing out all the information to the person who is the subject of that information. I am afraid that I have some reservations about the right of an individual to have a print-out of all the information held by a data bank. It could be very salutary to him, but it might also be traumatic, especially in the case of medical records. With certain persons, I feel that it will almost certainly lead to acts for the record, which could defeat the object of keeping the records. Moreover, once you have the record adjusted to your own satisfaction, you could then use it as a sort of testimonial when applying for a new job, or perhaps even when asking for a rise of salary, to ensure that justice is done to your own IQ.

My Lords, it is not possible to control by detailed legislation the complicated problems and the dangers raised by these new devices. The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, and the noble Lord, Lord Ironside, too, have spoken of a code of ethics for those who work the computers. This, I think, is an essential step; but I wonder whether we should not go one step further than that, and recognise that those who are working the computers now are a discreet profession—using the word "discreet" in its different sense. They are a separate profession. They can be distinguished from all others. They can be distinguished, even, from the pure mathematicians, which most of them also are. I would suggest that it has now reached the stage where it should be recognised as a profession, and that as a profession it should be given power to control and guide the actions of its members, just in the same way as the medical, dental or veterinary professions have their own councils. I should like to suggest that the time has come when thought might be given to the establishment of a Royal College.


My Lords, if the noble Lord will allow me to mention it, an incorporated society exists already. It has its own ethical committee, and it has its own examinations system. There is no need to do anything else.


With respect, my Lords, I think it has no powers of discipline.


It has powers to expel.


I should have thought that, becoming a definite profession, it would wish to have, and that it would be useful for the people who are working the computers for it to have, full powers of control similar to those in the other learned professions, not excluding the legal profession, because, as I see it, their responsibilities are every bit as great.

My Lords, I want to suggest that any legislation that may have to be passed—and it will have to be passed—should be as simple as possible, leaving the greater part of the running of the work to the functioning of the code of ethics and the supervision of the British Computer Society. There should be laid down, of course, things which could not be done, such as the use of computer records as evidence in courts of law and the exchange of data records between one Government Department and another; and there should also be, I would suggest (the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Ironside) a civil remedy for the misuse of records. I should like to take the position one step forward, because several noble Lords have made the point that it is very important to have the right people working these machines. 1 should like just for a moment to draw your Lordships' attention to the problem of training people to work the computers.

The computer board of the Ministry of Technology has done a very good job indeed in making provision for this training at the universities. Those universities at which the work is being done are all of them, I am sure, humbly hoping for extension to the machines which they have been given, but there is one further point. Apart from the use of these computers, which are being used mainly for research purposes, there is the point of training students at the universities in how to use computers—training them, as it were, to become professional computer operators and also training them, as student scientists or sociologists, how to use the computers in their work. There are several universities I know of at which the pressure on the existing computer facilities is such that they cannot be spared for teaching the undergraduates, and this may affect the adequate supply of people for the computer profession, if one could call it that. I understand that in educating such undergraduates the actual teaching can in no small measure be best done by the computer itself. It appears to me that no animals proliferate quite so fast as do computers.

I think, my Lords, it is fair to ask whether the Government, who have laid such emphasis on technological advance, are likely to be doing anything about this problem. The noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, said that this was a position of technological drift, and I agree with him. Nothing can be worse for the clean and tidy minds of the technologists than to be in a status of drift. Their frustration, which arises from drifting, will lead almost certainly to bad habits being formed. I would suggest that the time has now come for appropriate legislation and for the proper ordering of the profession; otherwise, the problems will become increasingly difficult as vested interests get themselves dug in.

4.49 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to add my voice to those of others of your Lordships in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, for initiating this extremely useful debate, and to apologise to him for not being in my place to hear him speak. But I had to keep a statutory engagement in the University of London. I also want to thank him, on behalf of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors, who are extremely concerned about this matter which he has raised. They know that some apprehensions exist among university staff and students over this problem, and I wondered whether to-night, just for a few moments, I might dwell on how the universities are trying to cope with this problem of confidentiality.

Some time ago the Department of Education and Science and the University Grants Committee raised with the universities the need for a central computerised record which would contain information about staff and students. The Committee of Vice-Chancellors realised that the time had come to modernise the statistics of education and they saw that a central record system would in fact be of advantage to them. If such a record were compiled the task of making the annual returns of new data and the up-dating of existing materials would be much easier. So also they recognised, though they had some apprehensions, that the task of obtaining data for some specific new inquiry would be easier—and I may say that the universities are being asked by outside agencies for new inquiries almost every month.

But, my Lords, having weighed up the advantages, the Vice-Chancellors' Committee saw that there were dangers. They therefore insisted that three safeguards should be observed. The first was that all records about university staff should be anonymous, and that the key which linked the names to the reference numbers used by this central recording body should rest in the possession of the universities themselves and not in the possession of the Department of Education and Science. Secondly, the Vice-Chancellors insisted that this information should be controlled by a standing policy group, to be comprised of the Chairman of the Vice-Chancellors' Committee and three of his colleagues, two representatives of the U.G.C. and one representative of the Statistics Section in the Department of Education and Science. This body should control the use to which data assembled in the Department would be put.

Thirdly, and finally, the Vice-Chancellors insisted on a formula as a guarantee against the misuse of materials. Under this formula, the Education Departments in Curzon Street, Scotland, and Northern Ireland were to give an assurance that unless a particular university gave specific permission no individual information on staff or students would be made accessible to persons who were not employed in the Education Departments' statistical divisions. They also received an assurance that individual data on staff and students would be used solely to provide statistical tabulations and not to reveal information about individuals.

My Lords, what is the information in this central record office which the Vice-Chancellors are so "steamed up" about? The information, broadly speaking, is basic personal data derived from the forms which the students fill in for the central clearing house, the U.C.C.A., for admission to university; also their qualifications on entry to university and details of the courses they follow; their examination results, and the qualifications they have on leaving university and their first employment. As regards staff, here again basic personal data is given, but not the name of the individual; and the history of his academic or other appointments is set out, together with details of his present appointment. It has always been agreed that in no circumstances will any information be given about staff or students' religion, political affiliations or disciplinary offences. As an additional safeguard, for what it is worth, there are the usual facilities for a print-out. The whole central record scheme is really only just beginning to come into operation. There have been pilot exercises, but data on all undergraduate students began to be assembled in October this year, and the post-graduate and university staff records will be started before the middle of 1970.

My Lords, I suspect that the present position, which I have tried to outline, will not last very long. The Education Departments apparently already feel that this agreement is not quite as helpful statistically as they would have hoped: and they may wish, so I am told, to reopen at some later date the question of access to individual data. If they do so, I must make it plain that the universities will expect to be consulted, as they hold very strong feelings indeed on this subject. And it is not only the universities who feel this way: the National Union of Students, which was never consulted about this matter, now believes strongly that it should be consulted and is undoubtedly uneasy. I understand that the President of the National Union of Students has written to the Secretary of State, as indeed he has to the Chairman of the Vice-Chancellors' Committee, expressing his worries about the present situation. Sir Derman Christopherson, our Chairman, confirmed that no information about individual students would be released from the central record operated by the U.C.C.A. unless the universities' policy committee gave authorisation. He also confirmed that even tabulated information from the central record is under the control of this central policy body.

Why should dons and students be so worried about this? I have been told that although the Department of Education and Science (I think it was then the Board of Education) had compiled data and statistics immediately after the First World War, and have been doing so since, in all that time there has never been any complaint about misuse of this confidential information. We in the universities have every belief that the high record of the Department will be upheld in the years to come. Nevertheless, I think there is this difference—and it is one to which the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, drew attention. The difference is that it would have taken a Hercules to dig out certain specific individual information from the hand-made files of the past, whereas to-day Atlas is not a mountain but the name of a computer in a university. That is the ease with which things can be moved to-day. It is so easy, in other words, to provide information that the temptation—which is hardly recognised as a temptation— to bureaucrats to begin to use information in some new way may be found very difficult to resist.

That is why there must be safeguards. That is why it is important to ensure that a man or a group of men, and not a machine, must be held responsible for the information which is conveyed and treated. We have here a most admirable example of the way in which modern technology can help institutions and, in particular, a Department of State to found its policy on fact instead of fancy, on data instead of upon inspired guesses. Yet, at the same time, there is here the very reason why the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, was so acute in choosing this topic for debate; there is here the risk that information can be misused. All the more reason, therefore, for the Legislature to curb the Executive in this particular matter.

4.58 p.m.


My Lords, this is developing into a very interesting debate and in a form which I think is unusual in your Lordships' House. It is in the form of a theme with variations. The noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, stated the theme very clearly; nobody has stated a different one. We have had some very fascinating variations of various kinds but the theme has been universally agreed. I will state it again. First, it is vital to realise that the advent of the computer has brought a change to modern society no less fundamental than the arrival of television. It cannot possibly be allowed to develop without some checks and balances. Secondly, there are certain facts which people making contracts with other people or having certain professional relations with other people are entitled to ask for and to which a computer bank can give far quicker, more accurate and more up-to-date answers than anything yet devised. Thirdly, information of this kind can be easily abused.

My Lords, that is the theme. I do not want to elaborate on it very much, except with a few reflections which only underline what has been said already in relation to the important feaure of credit rating. Credit rating is something which already happens and clearly—there has been some evidence of this from America—it is something which can be abused. The fact is that a trader is entitled to ask questions about the credit rating of a prospective purchaser. Indeed, tomorrow, during the Second Reading or the Administration of Justice Bill, I shall suggest that it might even be necessary to deprive a trader of his remedy if he does not make proper inquiries as to the credit rating of the person to whom he is selling.

A computer bank is the obvious answer to this problem. It can be abused, as has been said already; it may be used, for example, for blackmail, or the computer may make mistakes which could seriously damage the person concerned. So the safeguards which the noble Lord suggested become necessary. These, I think, are agreed by everybody to be registration of computers; the notification of anyone on the list of names that he is on it and what is said about him. This is the slogan—for which eventually we shall die in the streets—as coined by the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury: the unqualified right to print-out. That, it seems to me, is the most important thing in the debate. The person concerned should also be told to whom the information is given and, possibly, why it was given.

My Lords, we do not want to be too sensitive about this. I am reminded of a discussion I once had with some men in prison about whether they would rather appear before a lay magistrate or a judge. They were all for the lay magistrate; they said, "You have a far better chance." I asked "But what if you are innocent, and wrongly accused?", and they said, "Oh, the judge every time." I think that we can be too sensitive about the recording of truth. It seems to me that, with the increase in crime, the innocent may have to sacrifice a little of their privacy in order to help the defenders of the law to detect the guilty.

Some things were said to-day which worried me. The noble Lord, Lord Salerno, conjured up a picture of people walking along the street wearing very long faces, who, when asked, "What is the matter?" would say, "I have just had a most terrible print-out to-day." I believe, seriously, that this could be so. It is not an easy subject and it needs looking at. Of course, the quid pro quo has to be strong legislation to ensure that the information obtained is used scrupulously, and for the safeguards to be as strong as they can be.

Regarding the question of credit rating, the noble Earl, Lord Halshury, suggested—I think absolutely rightly—that if one used this method over references nobody would give them; I certainly would not. The whole point of a reference is to speak the truth in confidence. This already is not the case, at least it is half the case, in credit rating. What happens now is that one firm tells another firm, and a third firm collects the information. The only person who is never informed is the person about whom the information is given. I have the feeling that if the client, or whatever is the right description of the person being discussed, were to know what was happening, the information would not be forthcoming. Of course, if it were not forthcoming, the credit rating system would break down. This would have very serious effects in other ways, because we on the consumer side are trying to force hire-purchase people and others of that kind to make these inquiries before they lend; otherwise people who cannot afford things will buy them when they ought not to, which could be a disaster.

I do not want to make too much of this. I believe that there are very serious problems which will not be sorted out now; that we have to go straight in and legislate, and sort out the problems afterwards. The trouble is that things are already happening fairly fast. Computers are developing rapidly, and I feel that we cannot wait. I would not even have a Select Committee as the noble Lord, Lord Byers, suggested. I should like to see the Government accept that this is a matter on which immediate legislation is necessary. We shall never get it through without the Government providing time—


My Lords, I do not know why I should have been misunderstood. I said, "not a Select Committee".


The word "not" is very important, and I am sorry that I misunderstood the noble Lord. I got the impression, as did the noble Lord, Lord Balerno, that the noble Lord, Lord Byers, said something which suggested further examination before legislation.


My Lords, I believe that this is such a complicated subject that we could get the wrong legislation, and I should like to see a special team make a study in depth, which need not take long. From what I saw in the United States I think that there are so many loose ends which need to be pulled together that I should hate to go in for the wrong legislation.


My Lords, I am suggesting the other point of view, but we could argue this point indefinitely. The matter is urgent—whether one should inquire first and then legislate, or legislate first and then see what happens. I know what view the lawyers would take. I would take the view that one should sail straight in and do the obvious thing. My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. Lord Windle-sham, for initiating this debate. I hope that it will impress upon the Government the necessity for action of one kind—either that of Lord Byers or mine.

5.6 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to support the plea of the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, for urgency in this matter. I dare to plunge into this ocean of utterance coming from the academics and experts of great eminence because I see this as a debate less on technique than on principle; and I am much encouraged by the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Byers, right at the beginning of the debate gave his evidence to the effect that we have to take political decisions. This debate provides an opportunity to restore something of the faded image of principled politics latterly rather in discredit almost as a piece of archæology.

As I see it, the computer, wearing to-day's epaulettes of power, merely adds a new dimension to dangers that have been long present in society; indeed, that are as old as Adam. I am indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, for drawing my attention to what I think is a valuable quotation from a former distinguished Lord Chancellor, Lord Sankey, who argued that apart from the obscenities of Nazism and Fascism, the historical process of Government was aggregation of power at the centre—whether political, economic, social or industrial.

My Lords, the State is the social statement of the few in the name of the many, and nowadays much of its élan derives, surely, less from principle than from moral indignation, sometimes based on a rather hazy, "do-gooding" concept of principles. The tyranny that we confront to-day is not the tyranny of the old tyrant; it is the tyranny of the busybody society. The tyrant's motives we know as vanity, greed and the rest; and, more or less, we can come to terms with them as opportunity arises. But the busybody acts from righteousness, and with righteousness there is no compromise; there is only the submission of loss of soul. It is, in effect, the busybody society—not the efficient society—with its cloak of doing good and its pretence at bestowing compassion, with which we are dealing. Once again, I go back to Lord Sankey who, in a pregnant phrase, remarked that one of the most insidious and dangerous perversions of power was the dossier, whether in the Manila folder, which we nowadays remember with relish and affection, or whether it is the varactor diode burrowing away at its work inside the computer.

Nor is it any longer so certain, when we think of the State in its welfare aspect, that the law of confidence has not been subtly eroded. The full protection of the Hippocratic oath has surely shrunk, for contact with the complex medical organisation to-day must mean that confidence is extended beyond one's personal physician; indeed, it is card indexed, and we know it.

The right of privacy is something very nearly absolute, the right of the individual to choose states of intimacy, or of anonymity, of reserve or of solitude. The State is the social statement of the few in the name of the many. Neither the few, still less the many, care much for privacy. The right is dramatically ravished every time a newspaper proprietor allows an editor to send a reporter to interfere in the private grief of a citizen. Society cares even less for a ravishment much more difficult, probably much less thought about but, I believe, infinitely precious—I refer now to those few who profess the contemplative life, who on our behalf span the whole magnificent spectrum of man's dialogue with his Creator, whose lives refute the heresy that activity is action.

These poets and artists of silence and enclosure are affronted by the encroachment of noise, largely from the sky, and their absolute enclosure is no longer possible. Here is a precious right of privacy for which the many care not at all, the few, I believe, very little. But when we are thinking of the right of privacy we come surely to the final heresy, summed up in words of appalling presumption in an article in Science Journal, which are no doubt out of context but worth while quoting, none the less: We do not know what properties of privacy have social value and need to he preserved. In other words, there are properties of privacy which, by implication, may not have social value and, if so judged, may be scrapped—that is to say, minorities may be scrapped, if they are not seen to be socially valuable.

We are face to face surely with another error in current thinking. I refer to the major heresy of quantification, as a kind of natural descendant of the philosophy of materialism. The theory in its crudest form is that statistical evidence can add up to a value judgment. What about the motor car owner, the boot of whose car has thrice in a year been stove in by a car charging it from behind? The insurance company writes and tells him that he is an insurance risk, that he is "accident prone". It may be quite untrue. It is a value judgment arising from a statistic. Perhaps a more celebrated case is that of a former distinguished Prime Minister of this country, the statistical evidence of whose frequent consorting with prostitutes led to the conclusion, widely held, that he did this for pleasure. It took a libel action years later to prove that he did it purely in the interests of evangelism, and the proof was conclusive. Here was a value judgment made on statistical evidence of a kind. And, as the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, has reminded us, there is a Parkinson's Law about all this. We are entrapped in a kind of spiral, for as the capacity for information handling grows, so does the tendency to engage in cleverer manipulation and analysis of reported data, which in the end demands assembly of data on an ever larger number of variables.

Computer-based personal data banks exist, or will exist, in the Health Service. There is a danger signal to be read from the United States. Mr.Paul Baran, of the Rand Corporation, warns us that thirty years ago Congress was promised that social security numbers would never be used for another purpose. Yet to-day it is a rare personal record form which does not require the person filling it in to give his social security number. What I am afraid of—and it seems to me that there is widening anxiety on this score—is that a social security number in Britain may in due time become the key figure, slotting into and locking other data banks, education first, then tax, with credit rating and even personnel selection following on.

The noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, in what I thought was a most effective and telling phrase—and may I say now how grateful I, too, am to him for introducing this debate—referred to a state of technological drift. I see it reported in one of the planning unit reports of the British Medical Association, and it may have been reported elsewhere, that an interdepartmental committee in Whitehall is now studying the question of a national identification number. I have sought to give in advance notice to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor of some of the questions I wanted to raise. I addressed them from Edinburgh by post to the Government Chief Whip and I only hope that they arrived, having been posted in Edinburgh at the weekend; but if the noble and learned Lord has not received warning of the questions I wish to raise, perhaps he will be able at some later date to give the information.

I should like to ask whether it is the case that an interdepartmental committee in Whitehall is now studying the possibility of introducing a national identification number. If that is so, is it further the object to devise a personal index for an all-personal national system? I should also like to ask which Government Departments and, if it is known, as presumably it must be somewhere, which local authorities, actually have personal data banks now. Do Government Departments swap personal data between themselves? How far has the Central Statistical Office developed its coordination of the Government's personal data resources? Does the Board of Trade computerise information which comes to it in the course of company applications under the Local Employment and other Acts, and hold this available for reference later in other connections? Will the police computer, which I have read of as being likely to be on stream in 1972, be limited to persons with criminal records or will it extend to those under suspicion? And if the latter, how can the ordinary citizen, who might have given petty annoyance to the police by reporting a minor police offence, be sure that he will be safe? There is one final question which I think should be asked. Does the Inland Revenue invite information from the joint stock banks? Once it is computerised, it is much easier for that information to be made available.

Technical remedies and protection are readily pictured. There has been reference to the registration of data banks. Technically, it seems to be possible that data can be segregated by subject and purpose, and in the case of medical data graduated and graded by confidentiality between the different sorts of information—let us say, the history of bones, on the one hand, and, say, a history of psychiatric disorder on the other. One gathers that "scrambling" is possible to enable us to secure that the operators of computer systems cannot obtain a print-out at will. No doubt it is possible to arrange random checks, and alarm signals of an attempted burglary; and we have had from the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, the declaration of the citizen's inalienable right to a print-out. I must say that I am inclined to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Balerno, that there are difficulties in applying that principle, but I am sure that the principle is sound.

But to quote Lord Sankey once again, we are up against more than a technical situation. The historical process of government, he said, was aggregation of power at the centre. Now the means of aggregating that power are multiplied mightily. And we are warned by the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, that even among the most complete technical safe. guards—keys, locks, checks—that have been devised, none of them is completely proof against rupture.

We need something that convincingly grapples with the situation, and this is where we come to an act of political decision. I was much interested in Lord Annan's description of university performance. It points to part of a solution. We need, or shall need, some kind of watchdog body as far removed from the Government as our ingenuity can make it: some body whose members are perhaps nominated in turn, or at intervals, by such independent and unrelated bodies as the Computer Society, the B.M.A., the University Grants' Commission, the T.U.C., the C.B.I., and the British Council of Churches—what you will; and no doubt chaired (and I take again the point made by Lord Byers) by a High Court Judge.

With reports of a social security computer coming along at Reading; with the Central Statistical Office apparently working hard, and burrowing away; with a police computer seemingly only two years away; with, we are told (and I hope we may be corrected), studies going on now about the possibility of creating a national index for every citizen—with all that the urgency is drastic. Both the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, and the noble Lord, Lord Balerno, stressed this. There is no time to lose. Word will get around what is afoot. Not many of the public read Hansard, but what is said here eventually seeps down the line and the public do in the end get to know it.

If the computer's help to our wellbeing is not to be stultified by the emergence of a wild race of latter-day Luddites, plausible safeguards must be seen by everybody to exist. As citizens we are not quite yet a race of battery hens, although the tower block brings our civilisation pretty close to the broilerhouse—that vertical cul-de-sac, with meaningless layers of equal accommodation, each unit unrelated to the other (save in the housing department's computer), isolating each of them from mother earth, a disinfected, organised nowhere, packed with good statistical fodder.

My Lords, tame the monster now, or the agonies of choice between efficiency for power and the claims of human contentment will make the present race of protesters look like a well-mannered corps de ballet> for decency, manners and gentility. Tame the monster now, or see Animal Farm sire a new race of happy computer hippies by varactor diode out of social frustration. These hippies will exult in the merry ease with which data-processing can at critical points be thrown amok—demagnetising cheque index numbers with a pocket magnet, or punching holes in to-morrow's gas, light and phone bills to put the consumer thousands of pounds in credit, and spin the Post Office Giro into orbit for ever. We tame the monster now, my Lords, or else!

5.25 p.m.


My Lords, first let me add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, for initiating this debate. Computers, as all your Lordships know, have many applications in the field of medicine—for instance, in the organisation and the administration of the Health Services and in the actual practice of medicine and surgery in the processing of the data derived from laboratory tests and from monitoring devices. In research, of course, computers are very much used at the present time and can find co-relations between statistical data which no other process could possibly find in any reasonable amount of time. Thus, new concepts may arise in the field of causation of disease, and this may lead to prevention. Research does not, to my mind, present any particular ethical difficulty from the point of view of the computer. As the noble Lord, Lord Byers, and others have said, statistical information concerning, for instance, illness can quite easily be used without the disclosure of the names of individuals. I think computers will go on being used in medical research and should be encouraged, and, as I say, they present no great problem.

When we come to the question of storage and the use (for it is no use storing unless it is used) of personal records we run into much bigger difficulties. At first sight, it looks good. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Byers, who gave the example of the man from London who has a street accident in Newcastle and whose blood group can be ascertained in a matter of minutes from a central record. It could, of course, be obtained in a matter of perhaps five more minutes by the usual means used in hospital. This would mean pricking his finger, but I expect that he would have to put up with more than that before he was finished.

There are many difficulties which arise. First of all, how many data do you keep, and what do you get back if you ask for them? If you ask for a blood group, do you also get the dental fillings and the incipient tuberculosis in adolescence to which the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, referred? Do you get so many data that it is going to take you more hours to get through them than it would have done to find out a few things for yourself? Then there are great opportunities for mistake—and this has been mentioned in the course of the debate—especially in the input of data into the computer records. Having long experience of the inaccuracy of medical data, will they get a new sort of spurious reputation for accuracy if you get them by wire from a computer?

These are not the biggest difficulties. How much medical information really is confidential? Can it be categorised, as the noble Earl, Lord Lauderdale, suggested it might have to be? I do not think it can. I think medical data which are not particularly confidential in one context might be so in another. For instance, the blood group might be a quite confidential datum in a case of disputed paternity. We all know that we should not like our own psychiatric record—and I speak for myself as much as anyone—and things like venereal disease, abortions and so on, disclosed. Some of the others are very much more on the borderline.

I had a letter once from a doctor who was a medical officer of health. He asked me whether I would kindly tell him about a man I had been treating for high blood pressure. This doctor was not asking me for my opinion because he had to treat this man, he was asking because this man had applied for employment with the town hall, where the medical officer of health worked. The man was going to have some somewhat heavy work to do. I wrote back and said that I could not give the data he wanted because he was asking for the data in the role of the employer, and not in the role of a doctor.

Most data, it must be admitted, are not highly confidential. The present very inefficient and clumsy system of filing is really very protective, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield. who mentioned this point, will agree. The hospital records at present are kept usually in a central store, but they are not allowed out without the permission of the doctor who was in charge of the case. We are bound to lose that if we go to a central record, because during a lifetime a man is under the care of a number of different doctors at a number of different places. That is an attraction of central records in a certain way, but it is also a danger.

My real difficulty, and something that worries me most, is the incompatibility in the medical field, as I see it, of certain aims which the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, put before us so splendidly and clearly. This concerns "No access without authorisation." Does this not very considerably cancel out the advantage of the almost immediate reference to the records? Who is the person who is going to authorise that a certain patient's records can be used? Is it the patient himself? If so—and this brings me to my other point—does the patient know what is in those records? If it is the patient himself who can authorise that his records may be called for, the patient himself may be unconscious at the time that you want the records. This seems to be a little incompatible with the rapid use of central records.

The other matter is perhaps the most important of all, and that is the right of the individual to have a print-out. This would really be an absolutely new departure in medicine. I know that we are often accused of keeping things secret, not telling the patient everything, and we are very rightly accused. It is a mistake which many doctors—particularly in hospital perhaps—make; they do not tell their patients enough. We have some regard for what effect the information is going to have on the patients, and like to tell them ourselves, and not for them to get within a few minutes, whenever they want it apparently, a print-out of their medical data. I think this is quite incompatible with the present idea of the use of medical records. I think this could disturb the confidence with which doctor and patient give information to each other. For all these reasons, it will not worry me very much if the introduction of these methods into the personal records of medicine is long delayed.

5.36 p.m.


My Lords, may I join in the thanks accorded to the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, for initiating this debate, particularly within the terms in which it is stated. May I also apologise for not having been in my place earlier, owing to a previous engagement, and for my intervening at this stage.

I think there is an aspect related to this debate which should be put in your Lordships' House. It seems to me that a lot of apprehension has been expressed in the debate by many of those who have not been subjected to the kind of fears that could emerge from the compilation of a central register brought into being by computerization—to use that awful word. Let me say right away that I am an admirer of the computer technique and I subscribe to all the advantages which computers can confer in their proper field. But when we get into the field of records, and the freedom of the, individual, then we are on far more dangerous ground. I speak from a world where the compilation of records—particularly to the disadvantage of people—has been in existence for many, many decades. As I am sure your Lordships know, my history is in the trade union movement, and so I would say, without fear of contradiction, that in very broad areas in industry in the United Kingdom there had been compiled, long before I was born, what were called "black records" of people in industry, and particularly of trade unionists.

It might well be that in certain cases some of the recordings had been justified, but in many others the "black list ", as one would call it, had been completely unjustified. In many cases a certain individual, who was not at all subversively minded but might have been trade-union minded, had been black listed and perhaps denied employment for a lifetime. That was because of the compilation of records which had been compiled completely ex parte, where the individual concerned had no knowledge, nor had his organisation any knowledge, of the records and black listing to which he was subjected.

If we are going to compile records for a computer, we need to remember, as has already been said during this debate, that a computer is a machine, and a machine cannot think. A computer can operate only on the information which is fed into it. In the industrial field, just as in the academic field or the medical field, if we are going to have one party, and an interested party, solely compiling the input to the computer, then 1 would say that terrific injustice can be done to a considerable number of people. I think it is well enough known that I have not been regarded as very much of a subversive, nor, during my period of office in the trade union movement, very much as a strike-happy individual. However, it could be recorded—if a record was compiled—that I was the leader of the only major stoppage in the engineering and shipbuilding industries since 1922. That could be compiled factually. So I could have a terrifically black record stored in the records which would arise from computerisation, which I think would be rather out of character so far as I am concerned. And what could occur to me could occur to a vast number of individuals.

So, my Lords, I would subscribe completely to the view that has been expressed, that if modern techniques impel us into this field of compiling extensive records, the compilation of those records should be watched over by sonic kind of watchdog. I should not want to create a kind of Civil Service bureaucracy in this field; but I certainly think that if records of individuals are to become filed, whether in;the academic field, whether in the medical field or in the field which I know so well and which I think is particularly susceptible to wrong treatment--if the records of people in industry are to be compiled-it should not be from one source only; but considerable attention must be paid, and a considerable watchdog effort made, by a second, or even a third, party to ensure that massive injustice is not done to individuals.

5.41 p.m.


My Lords, the Motion which was placed before the House by the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, calls attention to a matter which is giving ever increasing cause for concern to thoughtful persons in many parts of the Free World. Though the problem he has raised—and we are all, I know, extremely grateful to him for raising it—is the direct consequence of very recent developments in technology, it is essentially by no means new. It is in fact the well-known problem of how to deal with the undesirable by-products of scientific discoveries which were designed to bring immense benefits to mankind, and indeed have done so, but which eventually have been found to have side-effects, not always foreseen, that are far less acceptable. Many examples will occur to your Lordships. I mention only one. Derivatives of the opium poppy were refined, and ultimately synthetic analogues were produced, which gave us a pharmacopoeia rich in analgesics which have gone far towards overcoming the dreadful problem of pain and have made possible a great advance in life-saving surgery. But these same discoveries have bestowed on us another gift—that of drug addiction.

The development of computers, which is steadily expanding, represents one of the greatest advances in modern technology. They are already beginning to revolutionise science, industry and commerce, as the noble Lord, Lord Byers, said. They are bound to play a tremendous and, indeed, essential rôle in the modernisation of Government and of State undertakings. We could not hope to hold our own in this modern competitive world without them. But they threaten to bring in their turn the potential undesirable consequences which the noble Lord has invited your Lordships to consider.

Most of your Lordships know a great deal more about computers than I do, but perhaps I may be forgiven in pointing out, to start with, that the computer is only a calculating and recording machine; and as such, although its invention is of immense importance, it is merely the latest aid to recording information and manipulating figures. Indeed, when a calculating machine which can reasonably claim to be regarded as the first computer was laboriously assembled by Charles Babbage in 1833, the apparently awesome invention was briskly and accurately put into its place by the comment, the engine has no pretentions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform". It will come as no surprise to the noble Ladies in the House that this discerning comment was the product of feminine common sense, its author being, I believe. Lady Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron. I regret to have to add that the engine was intended to be part of a larger machine, the project for which, though subsidised by the Government, was eventually abandoned. But perhaps its fate lends a little weight to my argument that the computer represents merely a new stage in a long-established and developing process.

I have recorded Lady Lovelace's comment, which is still valid, because I think that it is important to dispel the rather awesome mystical aura with which, on occasion, sensational journalism and advertising have sought to surround the computer; for example, by asserting that it can play chess or determine the authorship of Books of Scripture or Greek classics. Let me emphasise that the computer is incapable of independent reasoning; most of its errors, of which I shall have more to say later, merely reflect the errors of the human beings who programme and service it.

I think I remember my noble friend Lord Walston saying on a previous occasion that if you fed into a computer the criteria for determining the best management of a farm, your own acreage, the kind of crop your land grew best and the current prices for crops and livestock, the computer, after making a sufficient number of alternative findings, could find out which was the best way to run your farm. And it is, I think, well known that the Ministry of Defence have computers on which they play war games. Indeed, I understand that one General, having fed into a computer the rival troops, the kind of troops they were, their arms and dispositions, then asked it: "Do we advance or retreat?" With all the possible permutations and combinations, it naturally took the computer a little time to work out the problem, and it produced the answer, "Yes". So the General said: "Yes what?" And the computer said, "Yes sir".

My Lords, in spite of the astrological columns of the newspapers, I hope that we shall always retain some degree of cynicism about the latest form of the Delphic Oracle. This was in fact borne in on me quite early in life, because in the dining room of my house at Harrow we had a very high, white ceiling. It being natural for boys to make experiments in physical dexterity, it was found, with a little practice, that if you got a sufficiently pliable table knife and a pat of butter you could flick it up to the ceiling. This game was very popular indeed, and the ceiling became covered with round pats of fat—which was popular with everybody except the housemaster. I remember that he read us a lecture at the end of term and warned us that no such thing must ever happen again.

When we came back at the beginning of the next term, there was a nice new clean, white ceiling. Until half-term all went well. Then, one awful day, there in the middle of the ceiling was a pat of butter. The housemaster, it was known, was making inquiries, and it was said that there were boys who were being detained for questioning. At that time I was in a small group making our experiments into the occult with an Ouija board, so we asked the Ouija board the 64,000-dollar question: "Who put the butter on the ceiling?" And it had an answer—"G.O.D." We said, "What for?" And it said: "S.W.A.N.K." My Lords, I digress. That was an early experience in learning not to trust too much to the occult.

What are the great advantages of a computer to which I have already referred? First, it provides a much more convenient method of recording and manipulating masses of information and making involved calculations infinitely more quickly than the laborious compilation of written or typewritten records and the retrieval of calculations made from them by human beings. Thus, the computer can become a core of a highly complex administrative system. Secondly, although some computer techniques are in an early stage of development and improvements are being steadily devised, there is already evidence that the computer, when properly programmed, is much less prone to error than human beings. In view of the publicity given to occasional gross errors found in computer print-outs—the enormous gas bill, the manifestly absurd pay record, and so on—this may seem a rather surprising claim. But it must be remembered that in most cases when a computer appears to err it is merely carrying out a defective instruction in its programme. In other words, the error is human, not a failure of the machine. And human error is already widespread in personal records compiled by traditional methods.

It is already arguable that the occasional error, large though it may be, in a computerised system, represents a distinctly smaller hazard, especially when measured in terms of injustice to individuals, than the multiplicity of smaller errors commonly found in the clerical system of bookeeping. Indeed, tests carried out in connection with certain massive Post Office operations concerned with salaries and wages, in the course of which the performance of the new computer was matched against that of the existing clerical system, each processing the same data and aiming at the same end product, showed that on average only one error occurred in the computer system for every ten in the manual system. Furthermore, the built-in balancing controls of the computer ensured that almost all errors were immediately brought to notice, whereas a large number of errors in the manual pay-roll system tended to pass unnoticed. This very favourable ratio of accuracy will tend to increase as more experience of computer operations suggests improvements and refinements. This reduction in error cannot but benefit the ordinary citizen as an individual, and on the broader plane of industry and commerce the resultant increase in efficiency is clearly of the greatest importance to our national prosperity.

Lastly, in some ways a computer offers a higher degree of confidentiality than a system of manually maintained records. It is true that someone with the necessary expertise and unobserved access to a computer may quickly extract a great deal of personal information if, which is by no means always the case, that particular computer has a wide range of data on individuals. But this does not mean that an individual can nip briskly into a computer hall and get what he wants by flipping a lever or pressing a button. There is much more to it than that.

The illicit searcher after knowledge would need to be thoroughly familiar with the system and the particular code used on the computer in which he was interested. Some of these codes have already been discussed this afternoon by noble Lords who are experts in this field. The illicit searcher would need to evade unobserved the security arrangements which normally restrict access to a computer containing personal records. And if he possessed this knowledge and succeeded in gaining access he would still be liable to encounter other security devices.

But the manual recording system is apt to be even more vulnerable. It is easier to protect, and to limit access to, a computer than to guard thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—of personal files. A computer does not go and leave a file in a restaurant. A computer does not gossip. A computer does not betray. Information has to be extracted from it. It is proof against opportunist malevolent curiosity, and it is secure against what might be called the low-grade snooper.

Yet perhaps the greatest cause for distrust of the computer is the fear that confidential information stored in it may be improperly disclosed or, worse still, may contain erroneous information, damaging to an individual, of which he has no knowledge; or that information supplied in confidence for a limited purpose may be passed on, with the result that a cumulative dossier may he formed, containing a full account of the most intimate personal particulars. My Lords, these fears are very understandable but they are not, or should not be, confined to information stored in computers. These risks are inherent in any system of personal records. But the fears are there and the superior efficiency of the computer inevitably intensifies them.

What protection has the individual citizen against abuse or error? He is not entirely naked and unprotected under the existing law and practice. Government Departments, local authorities and national corporations attach great importance to maintaining the confidentiality of personal records. So do concerns such as banks, industrial and commercial firms and insurance companies. Officials in personnel departments run the risk of severe disciplinary action if they are guilty of a breach of confidence. So far as Government records are concerned, the Official Secrets Acts afford some degree of protection, and where there is confidential information in a particular part of the public sector the law not infrequently makes the misuse or improper disclosure of information a criminal offence. Recent examples that come to mind are the Abortion Regulations 1968 and the Post Office Act 1969. And, of course, officials are responsible to Ministers, and Ministers to Parliament.

The safeguards against misuse of personal records in the private sector are noticeably weaker. There is, of course, the costs sanction. I understand that neither of the two companies owning the largest credit registers in the country contemplates putting the registers on to computers. I thought of this when the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kings-bridge, said that he attached—as I know he does; and I share his anxiety—great importance to the whole question of credit-rating agencies, and he said that obvious remedies must be taken. As the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, has said, we must register the computers and then we must write down very clearly what are the circumstances on which the person on whom the information has been recorded is entitled to see what is on the register about himself. That is why I have taken a particular interest in this point.

The largest credit-rating agency have 14 million names on their register. They were asked, "What is your computer system?" They said, "Computer?—we have not got a computer." "Well, are you not going to put this all on computer?" "No." "Why not?" "Well, we have made inquiries and we are told that to put these 14 million names on computer would cost over £2 million."

My main feeling, if I may respectfully say so, as a result of this debate is that I have the greatest sympathy in regard to the dangers which many noble Lords foresee in the whole field of privacy but that there is too great a tendency to say, "This is all due to computers". There are, of course, the remedies of the law of defamation, which afford some protection if erroneous and damaging information is published. But the path of the aggrieved litigant is by no means free from pitfalls: he may have difficulty in preying publication; he may be defeated by a successful claim to qualified privilege, for example where erroneous and damaging information has been given, but in good faith, and he cannot prove malice—which indeed may not have existed at all. Worst of all, the injured party can hardly bring a suit in respect of information which damnifies him if he does not even suspect that it exists or, if he does so suspect, does not know where it is held.

My Lords, I must say that to state the problem is easier than to solve it, but I am in favour of the problem being carefully scrutinised, and I venture to suggest that our consideration of it will be more effective if we confine our discussion to essentials. In the Personal Records (Computers) Bill which the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, introduced this summer, he sought to impose obligations on persons maintaining data banks which do not contain personal information relating to identifiable persons. I would suggest to him, in all friendliness, that by so doing he has unnecessarily complicated the issue. It must be accepted that the use of computers storing impersonal information (including impersonal statistical information derived from personal records) is beginning to spread widely and in a matter of years will become commonplace. The mere registration of such data banks would be a gigantic task, and what useful purpose would it serve in the context of the present debate, which is expressly concerned with personal records and individual privacy? I submit that it would not be reasonable to concern ourselves with computers that are merely hyper-efficient registers of stores, costs or other statistics.

Secondly, I suggest that the question of confidentiality, or at least the question of what sort of record should be confidential, is also not relevant to our main theme. There is clearly room for argument on such matters, but this has nothing to do with computers as such. A confidential record is a confidential record, whether it is in shorthand on the back of an envelope, in a traditional confidential file or in a computer. All raise the same questions of confidentiality and accessibility.

Before going further, may I reply to specific questions which I was asked. The noble Lord, Lord Ironside, raised the question whether whoever gives information about themselves should not always be entitled to a copy of the information he had himself supplied. This is, to my mind, a very reasonable suggestion.I had exactly the same experience as I gather the noble Lord had with a life insurance company. The doctor asked me questions. He typed whatever I said on a form which I was then given to sign. I did not like to spend too long reading through it because I thought it might look as though I did not trust him. But the next day it occurred to me that I was doubtful about something I had said, and so I asked the insurance company if I could have a copy of the form, and they said, "No, you cannot".

The noble Lord, Lord Balerno, raised the question of computers in universities, and asked how far, if they were used for teaching, it would interfere with their use for research. This was, I thought, a rather indirect hint that the Government ought to supply more money for computers. As the noble Lord knows, there is a limit to Government expenditure, and it is for the universities to decide how they use what they have.

The noble Lord also suggested that computer records other than police records should be inadmissible in evidence in court. I think we could hardly do that. I would venture to remind him that only last Session we passed a Civil Evidence Act, one of the express objects of which was to make computerised evidence admissible. This, I am afraid, is essential, because so many people now keep their records, whether pay records or stores records, only on computers and in no other way at all. The noble Lord will remember that we had a little trouble with the Act, because it is a very technical subject, and we laid down in the Act the safeguards that the party who did not have the computer was to be able to use to satisfy himself about what was fed into the computer and whether it was working properly. Subject to that, I think it is essential that such evidence should be admissible.

Then the question of Government records was raised, and particularly with regard to the Ministry of Education. I am happy to confirm what the noble Lord, Lord Annan, has told us, and as there is apparently some degree of apprehension among university students may I just emphasise it by saying this. In co-operation with the educational institutions and authorities concerned, rigorous control is exercised over the selection of each item included in the record, the processes by which the data are transmitted and the way they are used. Information about an individual's politics, religion or character do not form any part of the records system. The central records of individuals' educational careers are being built up only for the purpose of preparing statistical tabulations in which no individual is separately identified. The object is to improve the statistical information about the working of the educational system and to provide better data for planning its future development. In particular one aim is to measure the flows of students and teachers from one part of the educational system to another, as a result of which it should be possible to provide young people with better information about the alternative educational opportunities open to them.

Information about individuals has also to be kept for administrative purposes, both by institutions and by central and local government departments, in the interests of the individual concerned; for instance, the payment of pensions to teachers and grants to students. Some of this information may at little extra cost be used for statistical purposes as input to the central record. Confidentiality rules are strictly applied to all records of individuals held by the Department. In the case of the records of students in further education establishments, an explicit formula provides that no information about an individual shall be divulged outside except with the express permission of that individual; and within the Department access to such information is confined to the statistical and computer divisions. In the university sector, control over the way in which the data held by the Universities Central Council on Admissions are used is exercised by a group representing the Committee o2 Vice-Chancellors and Principals and other educational interests.

The noble Earl, Lord Lauderdale, raised some further questions: first of all, as to the possibility of personal index numbers for every citizen for computer reference, and whether it was true that there was a Departmental committee working on this. In view of the way in which that sort of report spreads, may I say very clearly and categorically that there is no such Departmental committee and no work is being done on the project at all. Then the noble Earl asked which Government Departments had personal data banks. Of course, a large number necessarily do: in the public sector, medical records, academic records, social security records, Civil Service records, police records, Ministry of Defence records, local authority records, and land charges records. The Land Charges Registry is planned to go on to computer within the next year or so.

Then the noble Earl asked whether Government Departments handed such information to one another, and in particular whether the Inland Revenue asked banks to provide information. The answer to that is: only where there is statutory provision for it; for example, with regard to interest payments. Then he asked about the police computer. All I can say about the police computer is that it is not expected to be in operation until 1972, and it will contain exactly the same information as in other forms is already in existence and has been for a long time in New Scotland Yard.

Our own generation in particular—and I say this in view of what my noble friend Lord Ritchie-Calder said—is understandably daunted by the fear of "Big Brother". This fear must be put into proper perspective. A computer is not a Big Brother, and Big Brothers existed and were ruthlessly successful long before the advent of the modern computer. But there is no doubt that a sophisticated system would be very useful to Big Brother. Conversely, such a system, properly operated, can be of very great benefit to the community. The noble Lord, Lord Platt, mentioned the field of chronic disease. There again, it is becoming more and more essential for the success of treatment that an accurate and full medical history of the patient should be readily available in the strictest confidence to the doctor or doctors in charge of the patient's case. We may very well have to consider to what other persons, if any, it should be available.

The question whether computers operated by Government Departments should be subject to some form of independent control also raises considerable difficulty. On this, I would only say at the moment that I doubt whether any Government would be prepared to accept that a power of control as proposed in the noble Lord's Bill should be vested in an official, however eminent. This type of control would seem to me to derogate seriously from Ministerial responsibility, which is still an essential feature of our Parliamentary system. Unless we can rely on the integrity of officials and Ministers alike, subject always to accountability to Parliament, no system can be guaranteed against serious abuse.

Concern about the protection of the citizen's right to privacy is now widespread in the Free World—and let us be deeply grateful that we live in a part of the world where such concern can be conceived and freely expressed. This apprehension is not confined to a handful of radical thinkers, nor to a handful of progressive Governments. The International Commission of Jurists has already held a conference on the Right to Privacy. The Council of Europe has for some time been exploring the subject. UNESCO has also begun to interest itself, and so has the United Nations itself. The specific problem of computer privacy is prominently on the agenda of both the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Inter-governmental Council on Automatic Data Processing. Are many hands going to make light work, or is the broth going to be spoilt by too many cooks? I wish I knew. But the subject is so important that it is not easy to argue that these bodies do not have a legitimate interest, still less that they should abstain from investigating and discussing a matter of such vital importance. And the dialogue is by no means confined to jurists or Governments or international associations. In our own country, as the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury has told us, the British Computer Society has built up a Computer Privacy Specialist Group.

This intense activity on such a wide front is surely proof, if any were needed, that the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, is justified. But I fear that it is also an indication that there is no obvious, instantly available solution to the problems raised. Indeed, there is far from general agreement as to the nature of the citizen's right to privacy. I do not believe that, in this country at least, the average citizen wishes to contract out of his legitimate obligations to society. In my judgment, he is willing, however grudgingly, to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, although he is also, fortunately, very conscious that unless Caesar is constantly and alertly watched he may become over-ambitious, greedy for power, and indeed even ruthless. But in our modern, closely knit society we cannot escape involvement. We are, nevertheless, entitled to insist that the dignity of a citizen in a free society be recognised and that his basic freedoms be respected.

In short, my Lords, I return to my original basic theme. We need the computers we already have; we are going to need very many more. We can confidently expect not merely that their numbers will continue to expand with startling rapidity—the present rate of increase already represents an unprecedented technological achievement and the potential rate of expansion is enormous—but also that they will continue steadily to become more technically effective. It is our duty to ensure that we procure for our people the immense benefits that will be derived from the legitimate use of computers. We have no room for Luddites. But equally, in common with the rest of the free world, we must seek to guard against their abuse. And while I cannot pretend that an immediate, comprehensive solution is likely to arise from this debate, I am sure that we are right to discuss the problems and difficulties. The more we can learn, the better our chance of arriving at an acceptable solution or of making a worthy contribution to the international search for one.

So may I sum up? First, the Government are very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, for introducing this Motion for debate this afternoon. The subject is both an important one and an interesting one. Secondly, I do think that some noble Lords who have spoken have very much exaggerated the danger from computers in the sphere of invasions of privacy. There are, I believe, between 5,000 and 6,000 computers in the country. Outside the Ministry of Defence. who use many of them as part of their weapon equipments, the Government own some 200, the Universities about 40. Most of these computers are largely engaged in some phases of research work or are part of an automated factory system, or are concerned merely with records of wages and pay and stock. There would be no real point in registering these and saying that no-one must go near them, or operate them, until they have passed an examination in some special ethical code; and the few that do contain personal records are not inherently more liable to abuse than similar records in manual files. On the contrary, so careful are we, so far as the Government are concerned, not to reveal anything that the citizen tells us, that your Lordships may have noticed recently that the Prices and Incomes Board had to send out the most complicated questionnaire to solicitors in order to find out what their earnings were, because the Inland Revenue, quite rightly, would not tell them, although of course they had the information all the time.

Fourthly, behind this debate there is a wider question: that of the right of privacy. As your Lordships know, it is one in which I have for long been interested: the extent to which a man or woman not in private life is entitled to say, "This is my private life which is of no legitimate concern to the general public"; the extent to which there should be protection for business organisations against industrial espionage; the extent to which there should be protection against the invasion of our homes by the telescopic lens, or the bug under the bed, or the private detective, or even the too pressing methods of the doorstep salesman. All I can say about that, which is a by far wider and more important subject is this: my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and I fully recognise the importance of these issues and are very conscious of the widespread feeling about activities of this kind and the growing desire to find means of protecting the citizen from unreasonable infringements of his privacy. It may be that there is a need for an inquiry into this whole field, which, as I have indicated, goes so much wider than the topic covered by the noble Lord's Motion this afternoon. The Government are giving close consideration to this whole matter, and I hope that they will be in a position to make a further statement shortly.

6.16 p.m.


My Lords, in withdrawing this Motion I should like to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in what has been a most interesting debate. There are three lines of approach to the subject under discussion. First, it is possible to oppose the creation of data centres and computerised intelligence systems completely. I do not think anyone sought to do that. The second view is that traditional administrative and legal safeguards, plus self-restraint on the part of those operating the systems, are adequate, and I regard the Lord Chancellor's speech as coming within this category.

The third position assumes that neither a total ban nor traditional restraints represent desirable alternatives. I believe that the common theme of the debate, as Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge called it, was that most noble Lords want to see both better information and analysis of information, while at the same time ensuring that the privacy of individuals is adequately protected. There were some variations as to whether or not immediate legislation was required. Several noble Lords thought it was, among them Lord Donaldson, Lord Lauderdale and Lord Balerno. Some noble Lords argued that further inquiry was needed. Lord Byers was in favour of that, and, from what he has just said, the Lord Chancellor seems to be too.

I must confess that I was sorry the Lord Chancellor did not commit himself to a more positive statement on behalf of the Government. He spoke of the activity, international as well as national, that is taking place; but there is a real danger that Her Majesty's Government are going to fall behind informed opinion. That is so even on the crucial issue raised by the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, and others, which must have received some thought within the Government: that is whether or not when personal records—we can leave out health records—are held on a computer, is or is not the individual concerned entitled to have a print-out? The Lord Chancellor himself told us of his difficulties with an insurance company, but he did not feel able to give any statement of public policy.

In closing the debate I should like to say, as I did when opening, that it seems to me the Government Departments concerned, of which there are several, must resolve the question of departmental responsibility. Until there is somebody who is asked to grasp this nettle—and we can all accept that individual members of the Government are concerned and interested—until specific responsibility is fastened upon somebody or some Department, the sort of inquiries and action that we have been speaking about and which most noble Lords would like to see promoted, are unlikely to start. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.