A new dialogue on data
We need a rational, respectful discourse if we are to properly consider the benefits and flaws of using databases. …
… the increasing sophistication of data management has sparked concern about data protection and civil liberties, most acutely over the measures government takes to protect its citizens. This tension is serious, complex and inescapable. In modern democracies it will always be hard to strike the right balance between protecting the public from the threat posed by crime and terrorism and the need to protect civil liberties.
Reconciling the goods of liberty and security and opportunity, which all speak different languages, is never easy. The only way that it can be done is through rational and mutually respectful discourse, wary of anyone, on any side of the debate, who claims a monopoly of wisdom.
But that’s what the Government does, isn’t it? Claims a monopoly of wisdom, I mean.
Unless people agree with the Government, in which case those people are wise too…
The basic principles for using personal data are that it should be proportionate and necessary. That goes for debate about it too.
Sadly, such a rational, respectful discourse, so essential to the creation of public policy on this crucial issue, has been largely absent in recent years.
Government must take its share of the blame. Too often, we have been overly defensive and dismissive of criticism.
Rather understating it, seeing as Government Ministers have smeared and traduced their critics and called them “intellectual pygmies“, among other things.
But equally, opponents have been too quick to assume the worst of government, without any evidence to support their assumptions, replacing argument with rhetoric.
The Rowntree report, Database State, exemplifies this flawed discourse. Riddled with factual errors and misunderstandings, it reached conclusions without setting out the evidential base for doing so. The government has now published its response.
… We can never be complacent about databases – the challenge in getting the balance right between seizing the opportunities they offer and avoiding the risks they pose is evolving as fast as the technologies themselves. Whenever changes need to be made, we will make them. But we can only do this on the basis of a rational dialogue between all concerned.
Government Ministers aren’t interested in dialogue, nor are they interested in supporting their assertions with evidence.
They continue to waste our time and our money on half-baked, unsupported, proposals, and post hoc insincere apologies and justifications.
This is not “rational and mutually respectful discourse”, this is treating the world as a write-only medium and our money as their largesse.
(hat-tip Andrew Watson)
I’m reading the response and will update this post as I wade through it.
So far it can be summed up as “The Government doesn’t do anything wrong.”
I have that familiar but confusing sensation of being simultaneously amused and slightly frustrated.
Their comments on the effectiveness of the DNA database and eBorders are cases in point: there are no stats relating to convictions but examples of individual cases are, as usual, held up as proof that these are worthwhile, necessary and proportionate systems to have.
The ‘Database State’ report suggested that there was ‘little evidence of effectiveness’ of UKBA systems. However, the following case studies illustrate some of the benefits of e-Borders and outline some of the different ways the data can be used: [synopsis of three cases]
That’s it! There is nothing else offered to refute the claim that there is “little evidence of effectiveness”. Nothing. Possibly because there is little evidence of effectiveness.
The [Database State] report also noted ‘the growing public opposition to ID cards’ as part of the explanation for a red rating but there was no reference to support this suggestion – the majority of public opinion polls over the past five years have shown that the majority of people support identity cards and recent research has shown a consistent level of support for the National Identity Scheme of around 60%.
OK, it appears to be a bit remiss of the authors of Database State not to substantiate their claim here. But it seems to me any follower of the polls would, if he is honest, suggest there does indeed appear to be growing opposition to and declining support for ID cards.
Plot, for example, the results made available in table form by Polling Report:
What I hope you can see (and I’m sorry if it isn’t clear enough, do let me know) is that I’ve plotted the results of the polls over time for TNS/Home Office polls. Looking at a particular poll result over time – the result for ‘support ID cards’, for example. This is the pink line, to which I have added a dotted red line to show the linear trend. It is clearly in decline over time. Look too at the cyan (light blue) line, which represents the Home Office poll’s result for ‘oppose ID cards’. The dotted turquoise line represents the linear trend. Opposition is clearly growing over time. And remember, this is the Home Office’s own poll.
And have a look at the TNS report from June 2009:
Support for the service has decreased this wave, with only 56% agreeing strongly or slightly with the plan. This continues the general downtrend in levels of support over time.
The results for ICM/NO2ID polls tell a similar story: decline in support, growth in opposition.
(Note: the ballpark percentages for and against differ between the polls because of the different methodology – there is a much closer gap in the ICM/NO2ID results. Also, I haven’t plotted ‘don’t know’ or ‘undecided’)
Incidentally, TNS/Home Office changed the methodology of their poll since (and including) their February poll. They inserted this new question:
Q.1a How concerned or worried are you about protecting yourself against identity theft?
Before this question:
Q.1 Are you aware of the Government introducing a national identity scheme, which includes the Identity Card?
This could explain the jump in support (regardless, support remains in decline).
The Committee of MPs set up to examine the procedures of the House of Commons in the wake of the parliamentary expenses scandal has finally reported on something much worse, the emasculation of members. In its account, the Committee unconsciously describes this state of affairs almost as the dictionary has it. For emasculation can mean “rendering a male less of a man”, or “making a male feel himself to be less of a man by subjecting him to humiliation”.
In just this way, backbench MPs feel themselves ineffective and regularly reminded of their unimportance. That is why the Committee, led by Dr Tony Wright, observes: “At present many Members (of Parliament) do not see the point in attending debates or making the House the primary focus of their activities.” …
Why is this? Because ordinary Members of Parliament have no control of the agenda of the House. The timetable of business is arranged by the government of the day down to the last five minutes. It is obvious: if you can only discuss and debate what the Government says you may discuss and debate, then there is no reason at all to turn up. …
Smith makes some interesting points, but there is something missing in his article about what the problem is.
Ordinary Members of Parliament do ultimately have control of the agenda of the House. After all, it is they who decide the composition of Government – the Government is usually formed by the party with the majority of seats in the Commons, it is not a wholly distinct body, and if a majority of MPs decided a different Government should be formed, then that is the Government that will be formed.
It is because those MPs prioritise their Government over day-to-day control of the Parliamentary timetable that they do not have day-to-day control. In other words they have surrendered that power for the sake of their Government. Other MPs of course can legitimately feel emasculated, but not those who help form the Government.
Hmm, in retrospect the above is a bit idealistic and doesn’t take into account the complexities of party constitution and structure…
The home secretary, Alan Johnson, showed off his [identity card] as he travelled to Brussels for a meeting of EU ministers yesterday.
“The many benefits of the national identity card can now be enjoyed by members of the public in Manchester,” he said.
“The first applicants will soon be taking advantage of the voluntary card as a means to prove and protect their identity in a quick, simple and secure way.
“It can be used by young people as a convenient and universal proof of age and as a credit card-sized alternative to the passport when travelling in Europe.”
It’s really popular in Manchester, too*:
Since applications opened a fortnight ago, 1,386 people out of an eligible population of 1.7 million [or 0.08% - ukliberty] in the area have requested an application form.
The scheme’s launch was overshadowed by the revelation that the cards are only available to people who already have a passport or whose passport expired this year.
Anyone else wanting a £30 card will first have to sign up for a passport at a cost of £77.50.
So it will cost you £107.50 to have an identity card…
from the 19th november.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill (Liberal Democrat)
To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to legislate to abide by the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights of 4 December 2008 in S and Marper v United Kingdom so as to end the practice of holding DNA samples of individuals who are arrested but later acquitted or have the charges against them dropped; and, if so, whether they will ensure that the practice is ended and legislation enacted during the present Parliament.
Lord West of Spithead (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office; Labour)
We will bring forward proposals to change domestic law in response to the judgment as soon as parliamentary time allows.
… given that the governing party sets the Parliamentary timetable.
And, given that it is a matter of policy, not law, as to the samples that are taken and for how long, this is a bit of a red herring – in other words, the police aren’t obliged by law to take samples, the law simply gives them the power to do so, and policy changes do not require changes in domestic law.