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
Voices
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Voices
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
tech
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

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum