The Big Question: Are there illegal government databases and what can we do about it?

Why are we asking this now?

Claims that Britain is moving inexorably towards a database state have been strengthened by a report published yesterday by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. It found that 11 of the 46 database projects examined by researchers "almost certainly" breached human rights legislation. Twenty-nine were classed as "amber" – systems with significant problems and potential legal problems. Only six were classed as green.

What is the significance of the report ?

The trust commissioned a group of leading experts in the field of privacy and data management to conduct a survey of the Government's increasing capacity for storing information in the wake of the Revenue and Customs data scandal, when computer discs containing the entire child benefit database went missing in internal mail, potentially risking a release of sensitive personal information about millions of people.

And the report comes at a time of increasing concern about the extent of the information on citizens held by government. Ministers are due to consult on plans for a huge database of email, telephone and internet traffic in the coming weeks. But plans to allow a major expansion of data-sharing between government agencies and departments were scrapped last week after an outcry from campaigners.

What databases does the Government hold?

The Government holds a vast amount of information about its citizens, most of it generated routinely during the course of official business. They range from the database of television licenses, used to target people evading the licence fee, to the national DNA database, which holds profiles of around 4 million people, more than 500,000 of whom have not been convicted of any crime.

The Department of Work and Pensions holds information about people's benefit entitlements while HM Revenue and Customs holds data on tax returns. Other databases include the police national computer system, which holds records of offenders.

Are any new databases planned?

A series of major new polices are dependent on new national databases which could expand further the amount of information held on individuals. The highest-profile system is the national identity register, currently being developed by the Identity and Passport Service. The register will hold information on people's names and addresses, as well as biometric information such as facial recognition scans and fingerprints. The register will form the basis of the new ID cards, due to be issued to the first group of British nationals later this year.

Another controversial development is the planned ContactPoint children's database, which will include biographical and contact information for all children in England, as well as their contacts with social services. It is designed to improve child protection.

Meanwhile the NHS national care record system will attempt to centralise medical records to make it easier for health professionals to improve care for patients. But it has faced criticism on privacy and civil liberties grounds.

Why does the Government need all this information?

Ministers point out that databases are vital for the smooth operation of modern government and make it easier for people to use the public services to which they are entitled. There are hundreds of legitimate uses for official data by government. For example, the vehicle excise system allows millions of people to renew their car tax online without having to produce their tax and MOT documents at a Post Office. Millions also file their tax returns online.

Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, argued yesterday that 17,614 crimes have been solved last year because of DNA matches from the databases, including a series of serious offences only solved because the offenders' details were on the DNA register.

Ministers also argue that private firms, from banks to supermarkets with loyalty cards, also hold personal data on their customers without complaint.

Why are the critics so angry about them?

Civil liberties campaigners say database projects such as the national identity register fundamentally change the relationship between the individual and the state by requiring people to register fundamental personal details when they renew their passport.

Critics argue that holding personal and often sensitive data on centralised government databases opens the door to possible misuse of information and could lead to security problems. They say centralised databases are honeypots for hackers and could lead to inadvertent loss of secure data, such as the Revenue and Customs fiasco. Privacy campaigners also warn against the potential for data-sharing, arguing that it could lead to vast numbers of people having access to personal data. They say that sharing data between departments could dramatically increase the scope for probing into all aspects of people's lives.

What legal issues are raised by the growth of databases?

Yesterday's Joseph Rowntree report focussed on potential conflicts between the data held on government systems with the right to privacy in human rights legislation and the Data Protection Act.

The report argued that many databases probably contravene the European Convention on Human Rights. Legal problems with databases were brought into sharp relief when the European Court of Human Rights ruled in December that holding the DNA of innocent people contravened article eight of the Human Rights Convention, covering the right to respect for private and family life.

Ministers are preparing to consult on their response to the judgement. In Scotland DNA samples from people who are eventually not charged or who are later acquitted are destroyed. Challenged about the legality of government databases in the Commons yesterday Ms Smith insisted that the databases held by the Home Office were in accordance with the law.

Is the growth in the database state inevitable?

Governments clearly need to collect and hold data on people to deliver public services, but debate is raging about the limits of their powers to do so. In their quest to find savings from Whitehall budgets, both main opposition parties have promised to abolish major database projects.

Earlier this month the Liberal Democrats published a draft "freedom bill" which among other things proposed scrapping the national ID card scheme, and the register that underpins it, and put forward a ban on holding DNA samples on people not guilty of any crime. The party has also pledged to scrap the NHS records system. The Conservatives are also pledged to scrap the national ID card scheme and the ContactPoint children's database.

Jack Straw, the Secretary of State for Justice, acknowledged concern about data earlier this month when he shelved plans for sweeping new data- sharing powers.

Should Government databases be scaled back?

Yes...

*There are proposals that amount to an unprecedented intrusion on the privacy of individuals



*The DNA database has already fallen foul of human rights law and others will surely do the same



*Data loss scandals mean the Government cannot be trusted with large amounts of sensitive data

No...

*The modern world requires governments to hold data simply in order to deliver efficient public services



*Databases have huge benefits for child protection, personal security, improving health and other services



*Safeguards can be put in place to ensure that civil liberties and privacy are preserved

b.russell@independent.co.uk

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