Monday, 13 July 2009
Labour I/D Cards and the Database State
So upon his arrival into the Home Office 1 of the first acts of Alan Johnson was to recind the much discussed i/d card.
Well upon looking at his comments it was easy to see the wee bit of plastic we all had to carry about was to go. Well for the time being but the rest behind it was to remain.
Under Labour, a programme, known as Transformational Government, was established a few years ago to develop the database society and to obtain what the policy papers call "a single source of truth" about the citizen, based on their behaviour, experiences, beliefs, needs and rights. Why should the state want to have "a single source of truth" about us?
In a lecture to the Centre for Policy Studies, in London this Wednesday, Damian Green, the Tory frontbencher, will tackle this question head on; and it is heartening to see that the Tories, in opposition at least, have understood the dangers here. Government, says Mr Green, can do harm even when it is trying to do good, though I am by no means convinced that it really is seeking "to do good". All states collect information on their citizens. However, the amount they are able to collect depends upon the technology, which is clearly available nowadays, and the constraints placed upon its capture by the legislature. Such constraints are remarkably few in the UK compared to other democracies. How have we gone so quickly from being the country you would most expect to resist these tendencies to the one that adopted them so meekly?
Mr Green has identified 28 state databases on which personal information is kept, from the obviously necessary, such as the PAYE collection system, to some that are impossible to justify, like ContactPoint, which will hold the details of everyone under the age of 18 in England. The Conservatives have promised to scrap or modify many of these if they win power; but they might find in office that the temptation to hang on to the data is too tempting.
What is needed is a complete reversal of the assumption that our personal data is the state's to possess. Why should it? This is the question that should be answered by the "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" brigade. It is not as if letting the Government handle all of this information is secure, cheap or efficient. More importantly, it is inimical to any notion of individual freedom that a central bureaucracy should possess so much personal information about us; and, no, giving private data to the state, which has the power to misuse it to our considerable disadvantage, is not the same as having a Tesco Clubcard.
Mr Green puts forward a number of proposals for reform, including US-style security-freeze laws, which allow people to lock access to their data; an "open source" system which does not dictate the technology adopted by users from the centre; and a right to see who has accessed personal information, the so-called audit trails. Health records, for instance, would be better kept by GPs and by us as individuals. There are personalised electronic card systems available which can hold our medical details without them being available to government agencies, yet which are accessible by hospitals when we need them to be. This would eliminate the need for the NHS database and be practically cost-free. Instead, we are spending upwards of £12 billion on a centralised data system that hardly anyone wants.
There is now an assumption that the state should know everything about us and be able easily to access that information. This is justified as being good for us because it facilitates the provision of services that may be to our advantage, and on the grounds that anyone who is unhappy with the prospect must be concealing something nefarious.
And if you believe its in our benefit, and for our own good, then the next thing you will tell me is Afghanistan in winable.