No hiding place... how the surveillance society is always keeping an eye on you

It's hard to slip under the radar these days.

Even if you manage to dodge the country's network of CCTV cameras, the most innocent looking trappings of modern life now have the hidden ability to tell tales about everything from our financial status to the car we drive.

Signals from mobile phones allow the whereabouts of an individual to be pinpointed to within 100 metres, supermarkets use the information gathered from our loyalty cards to track our shopping habits and the web pages we surf create a lucrative data trail that advertisers are eager to harness.

Yesterday, the growth of Britain's surveillance society received yet another boost with the revelation the Home Office is planning to expand its car surveillance operation. Already, some 10 million journeys a day are recorded on the police's automatic number plate recognition system, in connection with everything from terrorism investigations to stolen cars. However, in four months' time that figure is set to rise to 50 million with officers advised to "fully and strategically exploit" the information.

Quite what that means is at yet unclear, but in wake of the news, civil liberties campaigners expressed familiar alarm and somewhat inevitably the move was seen as a further strengthening of a Big Brother-style grip on the country.

Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, said the database gave police "extraordinary powers of surveillance" that were both "unnecessary and disproportionate", adding: "This is possibly one of the most valuable reserves of data imaginable."

While the self-appointed defenders of our civil liberties are often dismissed as being overly paranoid, when it comes to the rapid and ongoing rise in surveillance their concerns seem to have a good grounding.

Two years ago, the Government's information commissioner, Richard Thomas, said his fears the UK would "sleep walk into a surveillance society" had already become a reality and with 4.2 million cameras – one for every 14 people – scanning Britain's streets we are one of the most monitored countries in the world.

"I think we have to recognise that in theory it is already possible to data map someone's life," says Steve Beecroft, a former fraud investigator for the financial sector. "If you drive a car, use the Tube, own a mobile phone or shop with a credit card, all that information could be collated to provide a pretty accurate picture of someone's movements.

"Then, of course, there's the internet. Ten or 15 years ago, we were asking how many homes had computers, now we're asking how many homes don't have computers. People have access to much more information than they ever had before, but they are also giving out more information about themselves than ever before. Sites like Facebook and MySpace are incredibly popular, but they both encourage users to post personal details."

While there has been a rapid rise in technology, many believe the regulations regarding privacy and data-sharing have been too slow to catch up.

"Most people who are going about their daily business really don't need to worry whether the Government is tracking their every move," says Mr Beecroft, who now works for financial consultants ConsultingSmart. "The reality is the vast majority of people don't do anything to attract the attention of the authorities and I think we can dismiss the idea that we are somehow all being spied on.

"However, the whole issue of data-mining is something that needs to be addressed. Basically, it's where companies use the information they have on individuals to target them with specific advertising. It's not something particularly new, but in recent years it has become increasingly sophisticated.

"Every time your supermarket loyalty card is swiped, for example, details of your shopping basket are logged. If you buy a lot of baby food, then they might decide to send you discounts of nappies.

"That's all well and good, but I think there does need to be a debate on the moral and legal guidelines for swapping and using personal data. Data-mining is something which is only going to grow and grow and if we don't have these important discussions now, attempting to tighten existing regulations or implement new guidelines retrospectively could be difficult."

The well-rehearsed response to those who fear the growth in surveillance is that only the guilty need worry.

However, concerns surrounding the DNA database, which includes thousands of people arrested but never actually convicted of a crime, has shown that being innocent may sometimes not be enough to prevent information being held by the authorities.

Perhaps even more worrying has been the stories of mislaid laptops and missing computer discs. While the Government has been quick to apologise for the errors, the incidents have fuelled fears that it's a question of when rather than if such information falls into the wrong hands.

"When stories like this make it into the news it understandably makes people worry," says Mr Beecroft. "However, I have worked with a number of government departments and from what I could see all of the highly sensitive information was properly encrypted.

"However, I think it is right that we look at the procedures which are in place and while it is impossible to remove human error, there is never any room for complacency.

"The main area which needs to be addressed is the use of outside contractors and how to ensure they don't have access to data once a particular project has come to an end."

With such losses rare, it's also worth noting the benefits improved surveillance technology has brought. CCTV has helped convict thousands of criminals, it's become a vital part of tracing missing people and many of those living in areas of high crime have welcomed its introduction. Computer technology has been vital in counter-terrorism operations, allowing police forces across

the world to share intelligence faster and more efficiently than ever before.

"I don't think we should be scared of surveillance," says Mr Beecroft. "However, technology moves fast and we just need to be aware of its potential applications."

While forecasting the future is a notoriously tricky business, some experts have suggested that within 10 years satellite navigation systems could be used to pass speeding or traffic offences to the police, schoolchildren will have swipe cards allowing their parents to monitor what they eat and shopping habits will be even more closely monitored with in-store electronic adverts changing depending on who happens to be passing by.

"Persuasive surveillance is likely to spread in the coming years," says Mr Thomas. "It's not some covert conspiracy, but we do need to look at whether it is changing the nature of society in a democratic nation.

"Data protection is something which is often dismissed as red tape, but in this new age it is vitally important. It puts fundamental safeguards in place and our job now is to prevent those lines being crossed."