Too much information

The age of the all-knowing database presents a challenge to democracy

If you think that the worst thing the government can do with all the data it collects about you is lose it in the post, then you haven't been watching The Last Enemy. Set in the near future, this BBC series is now halfway through exploring Britain as a surveillance society.

In one thrilling scene at the end of the first episode, the lead character, a reclusive mathematician seconded to the government to trial a new super-database, uses a combination of CCTV footage, automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras and facial recognition software, presumably linked to a putative National Identity Register, to track in minute detail the movements and associates of a girl with whom he has fallen in love.

What is shocking is that, bar the National Identity Register, a flawed and intrusive scheme that Gordon Brown should find a way to drop quick-smart, the data-gathering operations used in this scene are already in place. What's more, the data-sharing that has its logical conclusion in the fictional super-database (named "TIA" for Total Information Awareness) is already happening.

The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, signed a certificate last summer to exempt Transport for London and the Metropolitan Police from certain provisions of the Data Protection Act, so they could share data from TfL's congestion-charge cameras, allowing the Met to use the information when investigating threats to national security. The data - collected using ANPR cameras that encircle the capital - shows the movements of all motor vehicles in and out of the city centre. According to leaked Home Office documents, the government had considered extending the scheme to "all crime-fighting purposes".

In 2006 Richard Thomas, the UK Information Commissioner, said that Britain had sleepwalked into a surveillance society. He is now chairing an independent review into data-sharing.

The review is couched not in the terms of a surveillance state, but of "transformational government" - an idea proposed by that famous techno-illiterate, Tony Blair, who, inspired by a trip to the sheet metal suppliers Allsops in 2002, decided that joined-up data would deliver the competitive edge he was looking for in public service reform.

It should be clear, on deeper reflection, that a system designed to supply customers with the amounts of sheet metal they require will not necessarily scale to a system designed to deliver social justice. The latter relies on dignity, on trust, on personal relationships and on professional judgement - everything a disciplinary, discriminatory society created by the "mechanised compassion" of the database state will undermine.

The age of perfect memory, the unblinking eye of the computer log, represent a huge challenge to democracy. Until the government has a strategy to meet that challenge, further data-sharing is irresponsible in the extreme.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Gas gangsters