Be careful who you share your details with

Sian issues a warning against co-operating with field trials for the next census. After all who are

Imagine for a moment you are in charge of a government agency that is planning to collect personal information about every person in the UK. There are good reasons for doing this: aggregated, the information will help to organise services, housing, schools, water supplies and many other things for which the government needs accurate planning data. However, the details held about individuals are considered sensitive – so sensitive that they won’t be released publicly for 100 years.

Add to these considerations unease about an encroaching ‘database state’ and ‘surveillance society’, which has meant a growing revolt against proposals for compulsory ID cards, as well as millions signing a petition objecting to the tracking of vehicle journeys for a road pricing scheme.

Given all this, do you decide to collect the information using civil servants and in-house data systems, or do you contract out the process to a private company? And if you decide to farm it out, what kind of company would you choose?

Perhaps you might not pick a company that is so tied up with the American military that 80% of its business comes from the US Defence Department. And perhaps you might have reservations about putting this data in the hands of a company that boasts “our knowledge management systems transform disparate data into actionable intelligence” or claims that its “heritage of delivering information superiority to the warfighter is applied to complex mission critical programmes in homeland security”. But (you will have guessed by now) that’s exactly what the UK Office of National Statistics is doing with the next national census.

This weekend, on 13th May, field trials for the next census in 2011 will take place in five areas of England and Wales. These will involve two potential contractors, and one of these is Lockheed Martin: the biggest defence contractor in the world; manufacturer of land mines, depleted uranium shells and Trident missiles; provider of freelance interrogators for Guantanamo Bay; and self-proclaimed master of ‘integrated threat information’.

As an all-round opponent of the arms trade, supporting companies like this with public contracts alarms me enough already. However, the really worrying thing is the fact that the information being collected in the next census – including new questions on sources of income and place of birth (to help monitor immigration) – would be ideal fodder for the kind of anti-terror analyses being carried out by Lockheed, and could lead to a faraway database identifying thousands of us as potential ‘threats’.

Precisely this kind of analysis was run by NASA in 2001, using 5 million records from the US census which were provided by the Census Bureau itself, when it was trying to develop a terrorist screening system for airline passengers. This prompted protests by the American Civil Liberties Union, who told the Washington Times the release of census data to NASA was “a major breach of trust.”

I’m sure the government’s contract with Lockheed will include a promise not to take the data and use it for these purposes. But, in an age when even my keyring can hold two gigabytes of data, I think it will take a lot more than that to convince people their details will be safe. Not using an American arms company to run the census would be a start.

This is an important point. A fundamental tenet of census-taking is that the people filling in the forms should trust that they are doing so in privacy in order that they will give accurate information. Involving a company with the dubious connections of Lockheed Martin could easily undermine public confidence, and undermine the worth of the information collected.

Before 2011, we aim to do a lot to raise awareness of this issue. A similar campaign in Canada by privacy groups and progressive MPs before their 2006 census (in which Lockheed Martin was also involved) didn’t get the company replaced, but did help persuade Statistics Canada to change the contract to ensure that company employees only handled software and hardware and didn’t have access to the actual census data. The campaign also helped create a government task force specifically charged with monitoring privacy issues around the census.

For now, Greens in the five areas covered by this week’s trial run (Camden, Bath and East Somerset, Carmarthenshire, Stoke on Trent and Liverpool) are calling on people to boycott the test by not filling in their forms. Unlike the eventual census – where there is a legal obligation to take part – the test is voluntary and widespread non-participation would send a signal to the government that we want more controls on who processes information about us.