UK Liberty

Big brother or good mother?

Posted in database state, surveillance society by ukliberty on January 28, 2009

Alice Miles in the Times:

Scene one: … Tom [new boy, placed in school by social services] is wiry, neat, quiet and bright. He knows all the answers on the paper. But he writes them very very hard, almost piercing the sheet with his pencil. His lettering veers from tiny to huge in a single line. He is concentrating hard when he suddenly leans over to Louis’s paper, and scribbles heavily all over it.  …

It would be really helpful for that teacher, that school, to know a little more about Tom at this point.

Scene two: a busy accident and emergency department. Kelly, aged 10, was brought in by her family liaison officer, who has now left. Kelly is diabetic and nobody is sure if she has been taking her insulin. Kelly is uncooperative. Her foster parents are not here. Kelly is alone. She flings her cubicle curtain shut in the doctors’ faces.

The paediatrician knows from information provided by the family liaison officer that Kelly is usually treated at a different hospital. But she asked to be brought to this one today. Nobody knows why, nor do they know the names of the doctors who have treated her at the other hospital.

It would be really helpful for that paediatrician to know a little more about Kelly.

To hear the fuss from parents’ groups and civil liberties campaigners about the new childrens’ database that was activated this week, you would think that the Government was planning to post naked pictures of our kids for public officials to gawp at. It will be hacked, they warn; it will be abused; the bureaucrats will – horrors – put details of extracurricular activities such as piano and ballet lessons on it.

Much as I enjoy the fantasy, the reality is that social services and the police are not interested in little Laura’s ballet classes.

That is a silly thing for Alice to say – indeed it is a straw man.  The police and social services are interested in indicators of misbehaviour: psychological issues, truancy, domestic abuse, household income and employment, even profiling, which is where you look for patterns of potential misbehaviour (if ballet classes were considered to be a factor in misbehaviour they will be of interest). They are also interested in evidence of people being in particular locations at particular times.  Also we must take into account that people will use the data for unauthorised / unofficial purposes.

Social services are interested in Tom and Kelly and who the hell is responsible for them; as were Tom’s teacher and Kelly’s doctor. The Government is right: an enormous amount of time, and possibly even some lives, will be saved by having the names of any professional involved in a child’s care listed on a national database. It was one of the recommendations made by the official inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié nine years ago.

No, this is what the inquiry actually said:

Recommendation 17 The Government should actively explore the benefit to children of setting up and operating a national children’s database on all children under the age of 16. A feasibility study should be a prelude to a pilot study to explore its usefulness in strengthening the safeguards for children.

It also said,

the challenge is to provide busy staff in each of the agencies with something of real practical help and of manageable length. The test is simply one of ensuring the material actually helps staff do their job.

What proponents often fail to understand is that opponents aren’t against all data sharing. Indeed, we are for the right data being shared with the right people.  What we are against are the notions that the more data and the more people who can access it the better.


Scene 3: Jack has been placed at his new school by social services. One day he and his mother discover in the most horrible fashion that his abusive father has found out where he lives – via ContactPoint.

Scene 4: Jill is enjoying her new college and her new town.  Suddenly she is beaten, raped, and killed by her family because she brought dishonour on them.  They found her via ContactPoint.

Scene 5: Police have no idea of who is behind a series of rapes of young women until they discover the women were (a) vulnerable and had just come out of foster care, (b) on ContactPoint, and (c) all records were accessed tens of times by one user account.

Scene 6: Jim is stunned when his mother tells him to stop going out with Jane “because that girl has issues”.  What he doesn’t know is that his mother has access to ContactPoint and has no qualms about looking up the records of young people she has come into contact with.  When pressed, Jim’s mother gives him the details, he tells a friend, and eventually the whole school is aware of Jane’s issues.


Hardly.  Indeed, Alice herself writes that,

 it appears that the children most at risk, who come from abusive family backgrounds, will have their details “shielded” to prevent hacking by dangerous relatives.

Well, we can all imagine scenarios showing how good or bad ContactPoint might be in practice.  But my point is that it does introduce new risks for all the children recorded on it, risks that tend not to be discussed by its supporters, including abuse, errors, and harm caused by good intentions but incompetent practice.

How to mitigate such risks?

By putting only those children who are genuinely “at risk” on it, by restricting access to only those people who require access, and by storing only the information necessary for the time that is necessary – uncontroversial and statutory principles.

Now, Alice does make a good point here:

I find it baffling that a mother who routinely shops online, ordering children’s kit from lunchbox fruitsticks to Doctor Who duvet covers, freely giving her address to companies from John Lewis to sellers on Amazon marketplace (who are they, anyway?), together with all sorts of personal data, suddenly feels the need to panic when it is local authorities to whom far less personal information is being entrusted.

How much detail do you think someone gaining access to your online supermarket account could glean about you or your family? The rough age of your children, their favourite food, your address, when you tend to be in or out… People seem blithely to assume that the private sector is safe, yet only yesterday, about 4.5 million people who were registered with the online jobseekers’ site Monster had their personal details stolen by hackers.

(A point recently made by Unity on LC.)

But the private sector is largely opt-in (although, as Dan rightly pointed out, it’s important to look at what happens in practice) and there are multiple jobseeker sites, online retailers and so on, which means that if one has a bad reputation or lets me down, I can go elsewhere.  Unfortunately, if the public sector lets me down or has a bad reputation I don’t have any alternative – unless of course I emigrate and relocate my bank accounts and give up my state pension / benefits.

The other thing about the private sector is that it won’t take your child away.

The public sector already holds vast amounts of data, admittedly not always securely [indeed! Nor accurately]. Think how much information a mother claiming tax credits has to give about the hours she works and even her childcare arrangements. Then children themselves give out all sorts of personal details: while a father worries about whether Eleanor’s progress at tennis is being examined appropriately by a council official, Eleanor is upstairs on Bebo sharing information with anonymous “friends” about the party she plans to attend that night, and who she is going to snog at it.

Yes, people should be careful about the information they give to other people and organisations! 

Hardly a controversial point.  And that they have to give out lots of data, or casually give out their data, isn’t an excuse to have yet another database.  No, it’s something we should think about when being asked to support yet another database, or give yet more data away.

A pity such considerations are often disregarded for “the sake of the children”, or “the greater good”, or whatever.

One Response

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  1. Andrew Duffin said, on January 28, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    And remember that Labour used state database info to micro-target voters in the recent Glenrothes by-election.

    Is THAT what you want your confidential info used for? Without your knowledge and certainly without your assent or approval?

    It’s my choice whethe I have a Tesco clubcard or put my details publicly on FaceBook.

    As soon as the state starts using force to take my details and do what it wants with them, different standards apply.

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