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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths
Life and Style
life
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
News
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
news
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
2015 General Election
May2015

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

£16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Home Care Worker - Reading and Surrounding Areas

£9 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a s...

Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager - OTE £35,000

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Have you got a proven track rec...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn