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30 April 2009

The database tyranny

Labour has persistently ignored expert warnings about its approach to electronic government – but a

By Becky Hogge

“There is a sense in the senior civil service and among politicians that the personal data issue is now career-threatening and toxic.” So observes a recent report into the UK’s “database state”, published by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. Released in late March, it provoked two very different reactions. In nearly every major daily, concerned headlines echoed its findings – that a quarter of state-maintained databases are illegal under European privacy law. But in Westminster, apathy reigned. A junior minister was sent to rubbish the report on the Today programme, ignoring its contents in favour of questioning its provenance and repeating paternal platitudes: that the government’s rampant data-collection activities – unprecedented throughout the world – were intended for good and not evil.

To understand where it started to go wrong, we must go back to 2002. In a speech to the UK e-Summit, the famed tech-illiterate Tony Blair coined a flawed yet persistent cognitive metaphor. Describing a visit to a Huddersfield sheet-metal supplier, he commended its employment of information technology: “Enquiries from customers can now be instantly answered from any of the company’s networked computers . . . It’s given them competitive edge and saved them time and money.” Here was the Blair blueprint for public-service reform – all that was needed was for the state to emulate IT systems deployed on the factory floor.

On deeper reflection, it should have been clear that a system for supplying customers with sheet metal might not scale to a system for delivering social justice. But who was Whitehall to reflect deeply, as Blair’s Labour, commissioning one centralised information management project after another, gave civil servants the power they had always craved? And as for the consultants commissioned to build this stuff, why would they complain? The money on offer, and the high levels of tech-illiteracy among their state clients, no doubt helped them to forget that, in combination, the functionality, scale and security requirements of the projects they were being asked to deliver would be nigh on impossible to meet. It was left to experts like Ross Anderson, whose Foundation of Information Policy Research (FIPR) authored last month’s report, to raise the alarm. And they were routinely ignored.

Fast-forward to November 2007. Anderson is on Newsnight, opposite a junior secretary from the Treasury. It is the day of the announcement that HM Revenue and Customs has lost half the nation’s bank details in the post, and Anderson is methodically indicting the government for brushing aside the warnings of security experts about the centralised, top-down approach they have been taking to electronic government. Listing expert reports on, among other topics, a suite of children’s databases and the NHS central data spine – all ignored – Anderson points out that the government has simply not been interested in the experts’ warnings.

The term “database state” was first coined by the campaigners NO2ID in their quest to communicate that the pointless and intrusive national identity scheme represented far more than just another card in your wallet. It has a strong and powerful meaning to anyone familiar with networked, digital technology that may not be obvious to those of a less technical bent.

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Databases are not just lists, nor are they the digital equivalent of paper files. Structured databases enable the “querying” of data along novel lines, permitting machines to mine swaths of information, and from it to produce new information. The database state, therefore, is a machine bureaucracy that is actually run by machines. As such it promises to dehumanise both the public-service front line, and the people who rely on it most.

It is the data insecurity demonstrated by the HMRC debacle, coupled with the new, mechanised discrimination of the database state, that so alarms citizens today. But what is even more alarming is this administration’s refusal to countenance dissent on the issue. This must change. Since the economic crisis, much has been written in these pages about the opportunity the left now has for reinvention. But while that may entail greater intervention in the corporate sectors, intervention in our own private sphere must decrease. Apart from anything else, scrapping the illegal databases identified in the FIPR report will save taxpayers an awful lot of cash.

It may also save society. As the tabloids have reminded us, there is little more humiliating for a politician than to have her partner’s predilection for pay-per-play pornography hung out for public view; the loss of dignity may eventually cost Jacqui Smith her job. But surely she – and we – must realise that it is not only government ministers who value their privacy, their dignity? At every level of society, from the vaulted to the vulnerable, our livelihoods, indeed, for many of us our lives, rely on a social fabric that values the reasonable expectation of privacy as the prerequisite of human dignity, itself the foundation of every other human right.

You cannot fix society with computers. People fix society, if you let them. That means freeing nurses, teachers, social workers – and their clients – from the relentless tyranny of Whitehall’s cravings for ever more information. A benevolent state must have a human face, not an unblinking screen. Technology can help, but only if it is despatched by those at the front line. It is a perverse truth that in an age where the bottom-up, decentralised, so-called “network of ends” that is the internet has demonstrated its primacy, the state continues to deploy digital technology from the top down.

The Liberal Democrats, in setting up their Commission on Privacy and in speaking out about police action during the recent G20 protests, have become the go-to party for action on the continued erosion of civil liberties of which the database state is one part. The Tories, with their promise to scrap the ID card and the controversial children’s database, ContactPoint, will attract many younger voters in the metropolitan liberal belts come the next general election. Labour must shed its fear that the personal data issue is toxic, must wrest control of the debate from Whitehall and must act now. Social justice must not be cast aside in our flight from the tyranny of the machine state.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She sits on the Advisory Council of the Foundation for Information Policy Research

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