It’s a rum old thing, is the Joseph Rowntree report into Britain’s database state. It’s clearly written, normally dispassionate, and rivetingly annoyed. It crystallises many of the anxieties many of us are feeling about the development of the country’s new surveillance-and-tracking society. But it occasionally cheapens this effort with a dose of overreach. For instance:
Stephen is fourteen and lives with his mum in Nottingham. He is listed on all the big databases that every youngster is on nowadays: ContactPoint givesÂ links to all the public services he has used; the NHS Care Record Service has his medical records; the National Pupil Database has his school attendance, disciplinary history and test results; he is on the Child Benefits Database, and also on the National Identity Register since he applied for a passport;Â the Government Gateway has a record of all his online interactions with public services; and the ITSO smartcard he uses for local bus services and discount rail fares has been tracking him ever since his mum refilled it with her bank card. His mother frets about all this â€“ when she was a teenager in the 1980s, things like medical and school records were all kept on paper.
And although the family has always kept its phone number ex-directory and always ticks the â€˜no informationâ€™ box, they get ever more junk mail. More and more of it is for Stephen.
Like millions of children, he is on a few more databases besides. After an operation to remove a bone tumour, he needed an orthopaedic brace for two years, which brought him into the social care system. As his teachers could see from ContactPoint that he was known to social workers, they expected less of him, and he started doing less well at school. The social care system also led to his being scanned for ONSET, a Home Office system that tries to predict which children will become offenders. The Police National Database told ONSET that Stephenâ€™s father â€“ who left home when he was two and whom he does not remember â€“ had spent six months in prison for fraud, so the computer decided that Stephen was likely to offend.
When he was with some other youths who got in a fight, the police treated him as a suspect rather than a witness, and he got cautioned for affray. Ten years later, after he thought he had put all this behind him and completed an MSc in vehicle testing technology, Stephen finds that the governmentâ€™s new Extended Background Screening programme picked up his youthful indiscretion and he can not get the job he had hoped for at the Department of Transport. He tries to get jobs in the private sector, but the companies almost all find excuses to demand EBS checks. Two did not, but one of them picked up the fact that he had been treated for cancer; all cancer data is passed to cancer registries whether the patient likes it or not, and made available to all sorts of people and firms for research. Given the decline in the NHS since computerisation, most decent employers offer generous private health insurance â€“ so they are not too keen to hire people who have had serious illnesses.
That’s a powerful story, but it’s somewhat cheapened by the uncited asides like “given the decline in the NHS since computerisation.” This just gives politicians a way to discredit the report in its entirety, as was done (rather shockingly) by the ministerial drone who was sent out to knock the report down on Today this morning.
On the other hand, there’s also some fascinating insight into how gridlocked ministerial and civil service thinking is on this stuff. For instance:
There is a sense in the senior civil service and among politicians that the personal data issue is now career-threatening and toxic. No-one who values their career wants to get involved with it. This is irresponsible and short-sighted. Like Chernobyl, the database state has been a disaster waiting to happen. When it goes wrong, some brave souls need to go in and sort it out while others plan better ways to manage things in the longer term.
That rings rather true, doesn’t it?