Database state - the evidence

An important report was published on 23 March 2009 which included a list and summary of Britain’s biggest public sector databases. The report has some mistakes but they’re distractions rather than a reason to denigrate all it says, as NHS Connecting for Health is trying to do.  

The national databases being built under the NHS’s National Programme for IT [NPfIT] are among those which receive green, amber or red lights in the report according to privacy concerns about them. The Secondary Uses Services gets a red light, as does the NHS Detailed Care Record. Choose and Book and E-prescriptions get amber lights.

The report was commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust  from the Foundation of Information Policy Research [FIPR].  

In their briefings to broadcast journalists on the FIPR report, government spokespeople are trying to denigrate it by implying that its authors are politically biased.

But that’s how governments usually respond when faced with criticism they find difficult to parry credibly . Ministers even attacked the politically-neutral Information Technologists’ Company, among other organisations, when they were trying to shoot the messengers of bad news over the NHS’s NPfIT.

In his foreword to the FIPR report, Lord David Shutt, chairman of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, says:

“In October 2007 Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs lost two discs containing a copy of the entire child benefit database … The millions of people affected by this data loss, who may have thought they had nothing to hide, were shown that they do have much to fear from the failures of the database state.

“In the wake of the HMRC fiasco, and all the subsequent data losses that came to light in the
months that followed, the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust sponsored a meeting of academics and activists with an interest in privacy.

“These experts attempted to map Britain’s database state, identifying the many public sector databases that collect personal information about us. The task proved to be too big for one seminar, highlighting the need for a more in-depth study of the ‘Transformational Government’ programme.

“The Trust, therefore, commissioned the Foundation for Information Policy Research to produce this report, which provides the most comprehensive map of Britain’s database state currently available.

“Of the 46 databases assessed in this report only six are given the green light. That is, only six are found to have a proper legal basis for any privacy intrusions and are proportionate and necessary in a democratic society.

“Nearly twice as many are almost certainly illegal under human rights or data protection law and should be scrapped or substantially redesigned, while the remaining 29 databases have significant problems and should be subject to an independent review.

“We hope this report will help to highlight the scale of the problem we are facing and inform the ongoing debate about the sort of society we want to live in and how new information systems can help us get there.”

LibDem shadow home secretary Chris Huhne says:

This damning report exposes how the Government’s obsession with hoarding our personal information has turned Britain into a database state. In their desperation to track our every move, ministers have created a glut of databases, many of which are quite simply illegal. The report makes it clear that ID cards should be scrapped and innocent people should be removed from the DNA database.

Links:

Government databases breach human rights claims study – Computer Weekly

Database state – full report

Executive summary – Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust website

Right to privacy broken by a quarter of UK’s public databases says report – The Guardian

Govt has lost control of database state

Database state

Ideal Government

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What I don't get is why the government uses legislation as an excuse for bad data management. For instance, the personal details of every UK company director are available for without any traceability on who is requesting them or why. The potential for ID theft for leaking the dates of birth of company directors in this way is appalling and the government has no plans to stop doing this because it is a statutory obligation to provide the information to companies house and it is a statutory obligation for companies house to make it public. This is the worst sort of data management possible, ie there is no managament! If anyone needs to verify a company director's details for ID/credit checking purposes then the existing restricted route used to check individuals via credit reference bureaux is more than capable of doing the job in a far more secure and appropriate way. Institutionalised data leaking is totally unacceptable and there should be no get out clause in the data protection act for this sort of behaviour. If the government protects birth certificate information online for 100 years and census information online for 100 years then why does it distribute dates of birth so freely with no regard to the privacy and ID theft issues?

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As an out of work database developer, I'm all for more government databases. But in view of entirely justifiable concerns over security and indeed civil liberties, I am prepared to take on any of these major government database projects, charge HM Treasury £161 million (the going rate for a non-existent database of convicted offenders, for example), deliver nothing useful and walk away with my pockets bulging with cash from the taxpayer - enough for a modest Goodwin-style pension at least. And I guarantee that no data will ever be leaked or lost from my system, because it will never even get as far as being switched on. Bargain or what?

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