Government once again considers building a ‘super database’ linking all our personal details
Back in the good old days before every bus, train and lamppost carried a CCTV camera and Ripa (Regulation and Investigatory Power Act) was a twinkle in Home Secretary, Jack Straw’s eye. I have to comment on another crazy-sounding scheme – connecting all of government’s citizen information into a single giant database.
In the video roundtable discussion, I described the giant database idea as ‘The Beria Principle’ after the Russian NKVD security head, Lavrentiy Beria, the executor of Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge of the 1930s.
Around the same time, in the coffee lounge of the Institute of Directors, my friend J quipped: “You don’t have to worry about government until it’s joined-up.” J was what the BBC calls a ‘spook’ and had an office overlooking the Prime Minister’s garden.
Now while we have an Office of Constitutional Affairs, we don’t yet have a Combined State Political Directorate. That’s where I fear the idea for a huge Whitehall ‘super-database’ of people’s personal details might best sit, regardless of the noises surrounding its true objective of improving public services.
At the forthcoming e-Crime Congress in March, this is a subject which will be examined by Cambridge University professor Ross Anderson and information commissioner Richard Thomas, who has already warned the UK may be “sleepwalking into a surveillance society”.
Why do I object to the idea of joined-up government in the battle to improve public-sector efficiency and fight fraud? In principle I don’t but in practice I’m naturally uneasy when it comes to public-sector guardianship of personal data – whether this involves national insurance (NI) or NHS information, or simply the list of people who want to receive a text warning from MI5 in the event of a security alert.
The simple fact of the matter is that the government leaks like a sieve. We know from scandalous story after story that personal information isn’t secure and that criminals know that working for government departments such as the immigration service or even the Home Office can give them access to information or materials that can produce anything from passports to NI numbers.
After all, it’s been suggested that as many as 30 per cent of the NI numbers in circulation are bogus, costing the Treasury billions in fraud each year.
So why not have a single database that provides for a cross-checking of information, an idea that re-emerged in the government’s policy review on public services headed by Work and Pensions Secretary John Hutton?
I have several objections. Firstly, we don’t have enough floor space in our prisons to deal with the number of fraudsters, thieves and illegal immigrants that such a database might reveal.
Secondly, mirroring the privacy concerns that have marred the progress of the National Program for IT in the NHS, there’s little trust in government to properly protect the full details of your life from ‘interested parties’. These could be the security services, the Inland Revenue, your local council, Tesco, the Russian mafia or even the Combined State Political Directorate of tomorrow, given the rapid and alarming manner in which our unwritten constitution has changed over the last decade.
While being joined-up may offer a real advantage to government departments, the privacy risks to the rest of us are even greater.
Until the public sector can demonstrate a better track record of success with personal data than it has in the past, I’ll support my spooky friend in believing that some things are best left alone if we are not to plunge headlong into Big Brother’s vision of a future I want no part in.
Despite our best attempts to squelch the desire of business and government to monitor our moves online, in the end Big Brother will prevail on the web.
George Orwell’s 1984, one might argue, has finally arrived, 22 years late.
Ironically it’s Google and others that may yet find themselves forced into the position of playing Big Brother, dancing to the tune of governments that, like those of China and the US , would rather like to know more about the surfing habits of their citizens .
The book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, written during the commercial genesis of the internet by law professor Lawrence Lessig , argued that the ungoverned virtual world of the internet would find it impossible to avoid the introduction of an ‘ architecture of control ‘ . This would come about as government and business attempted to mitigate and manage the risks that accompanied the sudden opening of a Pandora’s Box of new freedoms and individual expression on a par with the introduction of the printed books and pamphlets that fuelled the Reformation of 16th century Europe.
Within the rapidly expanding online community, an often dissident and young online population can express itself on a multitude of websites that threaten the finely balanced political status of all regimes. What will happen , I hear you say , if one day, instead of one per cent, 40 per cent of the population of the greater world have access to the internet – and find their imagination and growing transnational sense of identity harnessed and centrally directed by the ideas they may find on the web ?
This is of course why governments of the free world and the not-so-free world want to place the equivalent of CCTV and speed cameras across the front door of cyberspace – Google and a handful of other global portal sites – in much the same manner as the new camera on the only road in and out of Birchington (As mentioned on TV) captures the vehicles details of all the passing traffic.
Surveillance of the roads is a fact of life that we now take for granted in the increasingly Orwellian Britain of the 21st century. Although companies like Google may seek to challenge a government’s right to internet traffic information, the very existence of such data makes these fishing expeditions unavoidable. Over time, governments – playing the national security card – will prevail and the web will become as much an integral part of the global surveillance society as the camera now innocuously sited on the A228.
As George Orwell wrote: ?Big brother is watching you”