the Disillusioned kid: Who watches the watchers?
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Monday, November 26, 2007

Who watches the watchers?

Last week's data disk fiasco in which Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs managed to lose two disks containing 25 million child benefit records was clearly a fuck up of huge proportions (but crucially not unique). If one could thing came out of it, however, it's the increased interest it has generated in the government's insatiable desire to know everything and anything it can about the population of the UK.

The most obvious manifestation of this desire is the introduction of identity cards. While this is a story which seems to have gone quiet in recent months, the preparations for the cards, and the database which they will feed into, continue apace. Many of the first-wave of interrogation centres, which those applying for ID cards will have to attend, are already open and if you apply for a passport for the first time (i.e. when you've never had one before) you already have to travel to one to be appropriately probed, poked, prodded and questioned.

The next big step looks to be the integration of the General Register Office (GRO), which handles the registration of births, marriages,civil partnerships and deaths, into the Identity and Passport Service (IPS) on April 1 next year. This is a step which has the advantage of being a bureaucratic step, likely to have little immediate impact on anyone beyond the GRO's employees. Nevertheless it represents a major increase in the amount of data held by the IPS and an important move towards the establishment of the National Identity Scheme.

While ID cards and the databases which the link to (the plural indicates that the government now intend to link three pre-existing databases rather than establish one single, combined one in order to save money) are the most worrying and controversial example of governmental data kleptocracy, but hardly unique.

The "Every Child Matters agenda" driven by the Children Act 2004 instituted a wide range of changes in local government provision for "children and young people," encouraging the merging of education and social service departments across the country. While the merits of this move are debatable (and we're unlikely to know for sure either way before somebody decides to try something else), it seems to me that the plans for a database of every child in the country are deeply worrying. This database, previously known as the Information Sharing Index or, simply, the Childrens Index has now been dubbed ContactPoint because of negative publicity about information sharing, but in my opinion remains no less worthy of those negative associations.

Action on Rights for Children explain:
ContactPoint is effectively a file-front that serves the whole range of agencies that may be involved with a child. It is intended to provide a complete directory of all children from birth, together with a list of the agencies with which s/he is in contact. It won’t hold any case records, but will enable practitioners to indicate their involvement with a family and contact each other in order to share information. It will also show whether an eCAF (an in-depth personal profile under the Common Assessment Framework) has been carried out and is available for sharing.
The theory is that only authorised personnel will have access to the data, but just how much faith are we expected to have in the measures intended to ensure this? I've worked in offices handling large amounts of data on children (which will presumably feed into ContactPoint) and it was an open secret that passwords, ostensibly to be used only be specified persons, would be used by other people. I'm less than convinced that this practice (motivated by a genuine desire to get the work done, rather than any kind of malice) is going to disappear and indeed it may well increase as more information is fed into the supposedly secure index.

This is all to say nothing of the gargantuan amounts of money being spent on setting the thing up. The government estimate it will cost £224 milion to set up and £41 million a year to run. We can safely assume that those will be underestimates. Imagine how many teachers, social workers or schools you could buy with that. (The figures sound particularly offensive given that I knew somebody working on this project in its early stages who used to recount stories of private consultants turning up on Friday's with bottles of champagne.)

Of course, in the spend huge amounts of money on a dubious databse stakes, ContactPoint pales into insignificance against the NHS "Spine," currently estimated at £20 billion this is the biggest IT project in the world. While the spine is a multifaceted project, central to it is the plan to create a huge database of patient's medical records and personal information. This generated considerable resistance last year from The Big Opt Out campaign who encouraged patients to write to their doctors asking them to withold their records.

I could go on. There's also the National DNA Database which police would very much like to expand; the integration of face recognition and Automated Number Plate Recognition software with the UK's unparalleled CCTV network; the growing number of schools fingerprinting their kids; and so on and so forth. Alone any of these would be dubious, together they begin to look distinctly worrying. Give that the incumbent government were the people who invaded Iraq do you really trust them with this much information on you? I certainly don't.

Somebody should really do something about all this...
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