Bad Idea: Data overload

Heather Brooke, the Freedom of Information campaigner and journalist who was working on the MPs' expenses scandal long before the Telegraph got its chequebook out, makes a neat point in her new book, The Silent State: "Surveillance is not about keeping us safe, it's about power."
The same can be said for many stores of information. Technology provides some important ways to collect and analyse data. But the world of knowledge that this data opens up is largely in the hands of the government and companies. When individuals attempt to gain access to information about, say, how public officials spend public money - or even subjects you might expect to be less divisive, such as the postcode address file, which Royal Mail sells to councils and companies - a basic inequality is revealed. The state wants to know all about you, but you are certainly not trusted with the same kind of access to it.

Yet judging by a new report from the think tank Demos, Private Lives: a People's Inquiry Into Personal Information, the public does trust the state. Private companies, too. "We are petrified of insecurity when information is others' to hold," the report notes, "but promiscuous when data is ours to give." Even as we worry about what a DNA database means for our rights, we'll be disingenuously putting a tick in the "Yes, I have read and understood the terms and conditions" box on a website.

For its inquiry, Demos arranged a series of lectures about our "database society" from lawyers, consumer advocates, mobile-phone providers and the like. It then gave the audience of 40 "the time to reflect, debate and decide what they thought" about three types of data collection: the use of communications data (such as that collected by internet search engines), targeted advertising and medical information.

The outcome is a series of 42 calls to action, suggesting improvements. But despite the lengthy list, it turns out that people were largely content. So many of the "calls to action" are vague: "more meaningful control over what information you choose to give", for example. Interviewees worried about how safe their data was, but agreed that databases had improved their services. They felt that use of communications data for security was proportionate, and likened targeted advertising "to getting to know the owner of a local shop" - although you learn as much about a shopkeeper as they learn about you.

Perhaps a sanguine approach is a healthy one, but the report notes that "gathering and using personal information require . . . a focus on the principles of awareness, consent and firm regulation". There are undoubted benefits to database society. But when those collecting our information are so secretive about their own, perhaps we need to question why.

This article first appeared in the 05 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, GOD