Is it Aldous Huxley or George Orwell?

Once we had justice or injustice. Now the government speaks of "faster, more effective justice". Wha

Who, we sometimes ask, at the dinners and debates of the intelligentsia, was the 20th century's more insightful prophet - Aldous Huxley or George Orwell? Each is best known for his dystopian fantasy - Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four - and both feared where modern technology might lead, for authorities and individuals alike. But while Huxley anticipated a world of empty pleasures and excessive convenience, Orwell predicted ubiquitous surveillance and the eradication of freedom. Who was right?

E-government raises the same question. Thanks to developments in IT, government service providers can retain far larger quantities of data on individual citizens, and remember them from one interaction to the next. This is no different from how private-sector companies behave in their efforts to improve customer care, through loyalty cards, for instance.

But the question repeatedly posed to government departments is whether their desire to store, manage and share personal data is done in the interest of better, more personalised services, or to develop a better picture of what citizens are up to. Do they want to satisfy or to monitor? Huxley's vision or Orwell's?

In criminal justice, the answer is that it's both. The government's plans to join up the criminal justice system with IT are simultaneously about improving the service to victims and witnesses, and developing better profiling and tracking of offenders. The benefits and perils of the digital age usually come as a package. Online shopping may offer a new convenience, but it also brings new types of security risk.

In the case of criminal justice, the pluses and minuses of digitisation couldn't be more separately distributed. IT is very good news for the public and very bad news for the offender. As the service to the customer improves, so the loopholes open to the guilty are closed. Whether the digital age is experienced as greater individual satisfaction or as greater state surveillance depends entirely on which side of the law you operate.

The government's hope is that joining up the criminal justice system through IT should eventually lead to a situation where disparate bodies around the country can share information quickly, efficiently and securely. The bodies involved include the Crown Prosecution Service, the courts, magistrate's courts, probation service, youth offending teams, the police and prisons.

The hope is that independent criminal justice practitioners, such as barristers and solicitors, will also be integrated into these bodies in a secure fashion. The organisation tasked with integrating these separate information sources is called Criminal Justice IT (CJIT), and it has a range of targets to meet, leading up to 2008.

The IT programme has two main elements to it, expected to cost around £2.2bn. The first is a secure e-mail system, already live in 42 criminal justice areas (CJAs), enabling criminal justice agencies to work more closely together and improve "information flows". The CJAs identified more than 190 types of information flow that would have been made quicker and easier via e-mail, but which could not be sent via standard e-mail.

They include requests to the police for further evidence or previous convictions, or requests to the Crown Court for a witness summons. These communications previously went by post, and so e-mail has already led to a significant speeding up. By the end of this year, secure e-mail will have been rolled out across the criminal justice system.

The second major IT project is the Criminal Justice System Exchange (CJS Exchange), which will connect the disparate information systems already in place across England and Wales. Secure portals will enable authorised people to access case file information held in other organisations as soon as it becomes available.

In addition, new case management systems, such as a National Strategy for Police Information Systems (NSPIS), COMPASS for the Crown Prosecution Service (implemented last year) and Libra, used by the magistrate's courts, will create more efficient ways of handling information between separate bits of the criminal justice system.

Improved information sharing brings many benefits. Like any form of e-government investment, it is expected to make processes cheaper over the long term, as well as quicker. But it should also improve the quality of decision-making at different levels - decisions over whether to approve bail, for example - and can support offender rehabilitation.

Given IT's surveillance advantages, criminal justice could have been an early target for joined-upness. After all, Britain leads the world in the use of CCTV to tackle crime, with more cameras per head of the population than any other country. But in the wake of the dotcom boom, e-government policy was driven more by an exuberant desire to put information and transactional services (such as filing tax returns) on- line. Criminal justice became a late starter, for reasons only just now being addressed.

Criminal justice's first problem, less apparent in other public services, is security. New technologies have a nasty habit of creating new security risks as fast as they alleviate others. As the American security guru Bruce Schneier puts it: "Technology will continue to alter the balance between attacker and defender, at an ever-increasing pace. And technology will generally favour the attacker, with the defender playing catch-up." The government has to be sure that its pursuit of more effective and efficient criminal justice can't be hacked into, undermining its entire integrity.

But a more profound problem was posed by data protection legislation. This arose as one of the key problem areas in the Bichard inquiry into the Soham murders of 2002. It transpired that, because they were uncertain about its legality, police forces had failed to share data about the murderer Ian Huntley which would have ensured that he remained under surveillance.

Sir Michael Bichard recommended that "better guidance is needed on the collection, retention, deletion, use and sharing of information, so that police officers, social workers, and other professionals can feel more confident in using information properly". Security fears will always conflict with the data protection principle, as with anti-terror legislation and the national identity register. Charles Clarke's recent appeal for EU retention of internet and mobile phone records is the latest example of government's pressure on existing data protection protocols. As a security threat increases, so popular concerns with protecting privacy recede. The privacy argument is rooted in human rights, but the rights of dangerous individuals are not uppermost in the minds of the government or the public.

The CJIT insists that "this whole programme amounts to a modernising and rebalancing of the entire criminal justice system in favour of victims and the community". Opinion polls suggest that the government is more in touch with the mood of the populace than the privacy lobby, and so the IT systems currently being developed are unlikely to encounter significant resistance.

Which takes us to the flip side of criminal justice IT, the improved customer satisfaction it offers victims and witnesses. Once information flows are occurring digitally, this offers new, more convenient access points for law-abiding members of the public. By the end of this year, a secure portal will be available to enable victims of crime to use CJS Exchange (where available) to track the progress of their cases themselves. Text messages will be used to update witnesses on when they must be in court. For the public, the criminal justice service is enhanced as any other service would be. Its performance is improved, its processes streamlined. Where liberals might once have recognised only a binary distinction between justice and injustice, the government now speaks of "faster and more effective justice".

Like all e-government programmes, criminal justice IT envisages an enticing win-win. The effectiveness of surveillance will increase in tandem with the customer satisfaction of victims or witnesses. The distinction between "good guys" and "bad guys" becomes more clear-cut, defined by which side of the bargain one is on. All of us - even criminals - would rather be the recipients of information than the subject of it, the watchers rather than the watched.

In cases where we're sure who is "good" and who is "bad", IT offers unprecedented opportunities to bring convenience to the former, and justice to the latter. But that should not distract us from the moral grey areas.

A more effective IT system does not eradicate moral dilemmas. In fact, it exacerbates them. The expansion of data-sharing and surveillance can still go too far, even if it is on behalf of the law-abiding citizen. Meanwhile, speed and convenience for the victim must not become overarching goals of the system. Those acclaimed dystopian fantasists should continue to haunt us. Both of them.

William Davies is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research. His new report Modernising with Purpose: a manifesto for a digital Britain is available from www.ippr.org