LONDON — Privacy is now increasingly recognized as an important human right, but its limits are not easy to define. How far, for instance, should the press be prevented from intrusive photography of VIPs? The media generally argue that it is their job to report on the movements and actions of public figures. To prevent them from doing so by legal action would undermine press freedoms. Such arguments have validity, but media intrusion sometimes can amount to harassment and needs to be restrained, preferably by an accepted code of conduct enforced by a media watchdog.

In Britain this is the responsibility of the Press Complaints Commission, which was set up by the press. If such an organization fails to do its job properly, legislation may be needed, but there is always the danger that such legislation, even if very carefully worded, will be abused by those in authority.

The biggest threat to privacy probably comes from government and business rather than the media. Fortunately, the “big brother” of George Orwell’s famous novel “1984” has not materialized, but wherever you go in public places and shops there are security cameras designed to deter and record criminal activity — although recent studies in Britain suggest that good street lighting is more effective in reducing crime than surveillance cameras.

Such cameras will not be dismantled. Indeed, they are proliferating, especially on business and private property. They are also being supplemented by roadside cameras designed to deter and catch drivers who exceed speed limits and run traffic lights.

In World War II, Britain operated an identity card system. Lacking a photograph, it was of little value and was abolished soon after the war ended. From time to time the debate about the desirability of a compulsory national identity card incorporating a photograph is revived, but human rights activists object and there are doubts about its value in reducing crime.

In fact, a national identity card of sorts has already been introduced. In recent years, driving licenses have featured photographs. There is, however, growing demand for an improved means of preventing fraud in the collection of social security benefits. One suggestion that has been considered is that benefits should be provided only to those who have obtained a special-benefits identity card with a photograph, but this is seen by many as the “thin end of the wedge.”

To try to prevent terrorists and other criminals from penetrating offices and factories, businesses increasingly require employees to carry identity cards with a photograph to gain access to the premises.

The growth in credit-card fraud has become a major problem for issuers and for customers whose cards are stolen or whose card details are copied. One way to combat this crime would be to insist that a credit card can only be used with a PIN (personal identification number. This is already the practice in most European countries. In the future, electronic devices will no doubt be introduced that can be activated by fingerprints or other identification methods.

The development of mobile phones, credit cards and store-specific cards means that businesses keep a plethora of information on individuals. In Britain, our medical records are stored by the National Health Service. Our incomes are monitored by the Inland Revenue for tax purposes. Our movements can be traced via our mobile phones. A frightening amount of information about us is available to business and to government agencies.

All this led to the introduction of the Data Protection Act. Under this act, an agency, for instance, cannot give out the address of its members unless it has specifically authorized it to do so. Each person can now demand to see data kept about him or her. But many doubt the effectiveness of the act. An increasing number of people are going “ex-directory” — refusing to list their telephone numbers in directories in the hope that they can reduce the number of sales calls and the amount of junk mail, but addresses can be easily discovered through other types of directories. For instance, postal codes can pinpoint areas for insurers, enabling them to increase premiums if the area in question has a high crime rate or is liable to flooding.

Against this background I have read with interest about the debates in Japan over the new central registry (“Juki Net”) and the 11-digit identification number that will be issued to everyone. The system is intended to make available to government agencies each citizen’s name, sex, address and date of birth.

I can understand the case for such a system, but as the recent revelations of misuse of Defense Agency personal information show, there are real as well as potential dangers in the adoption of the Juki Net system. Older people who lived in Japan before and during the war will recall the “gonin gumi” system, which was used effectively for centuries to control the Japanese population.

Japan may have some of the best and most efficient bureaucrats in the world, but they are no longer trusted anymore than politicians are. The Japanese Home Ministry asserts that the security provisions it has introduced provide adequate safeguards against misuse, but that doesn’t seem to have persuaded the authorities in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward, for instance, to cooperate with the scheme. Moreover, two bills to protect privacy have yet to be passed by the Diet. In dealing with the new legislation, press and academic freedoms must be adequately protected.

Privacy is an important right. We must not undermine it by giving too much power to government, business or the media. It will not be easy to achieve the right balance, and we must all be on our guard.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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