Leading article: Personal privacy and the power of the State

Share

Not long before Christmas, the Home Secretary announced that the Government had abandoned plans for a giant database to support its scheme for national identity cards. At the time, this was seen as a concession to those who - quite reasonably - feared the "Big Brother" aspect of ID cards. It was also seen as realistic, given the likely cost and complexity of such an undertaking. John Reid said that the Government had decided to make do with the databases it already had.

It now appears that, while plans for this particular centralised database may have bitten the dust, the Government has not given up its intention to find out more about us. This time, though, ministers are taking care to present the project as being more for our benefit and convenience than theirs. The Prime Minister is expected to give details of the proposals today.

From what has emerged so far, the new database would allow different Whitehall departments to collate and cross-check the information they hold on individuals. The argument is that this would make public services more efficient, for them and for us, because the data on each person would only have to be collected and recorded once.

One example cited is that of a bereaved relative who may currently have to report a death to several different departments. With a central database, all the relevant files would automatically be updated. Similarly, applications for particular benefits might be speeded up if all the pertinent data were instantly available. What sometimes seems the arbitrary division between social services and NHS provision could be overcome.

Presented in this way, the plan for a new central database might look entirely benign. The way that the Government is planning to set about its task, however, should immediately raise some red flags. As a first stage, ministers apparently want to gauge public reaction to a relaxation of the Data Protection Act. In other words, what they would like to do is weaken some of the most important legislation on personal privacy of recent years.

This is our biggest objection. But we have plenty more. As the latest revelations about Home Office practice show, the Government's record on registering and keeping personal data leaves much to be desired, as does its record on computer projects - the NHS and the Child Support Agency come to mind. Fears of snooping may be justified, but the greater risk may derive from craven inefficiency. And while the new database would not record, at the start at least, the biometric data that was to have been a key feature of the central database for ID cards, this does not mean that this information could not be added later.

The way the Government has homed in on the Data Protection Act as a hindrance to efficiency should also raise a few questions. The Data Protection Act is rather like the Human Rights Act, in that it has become a whipping boy for the routine inefficiency of government departments. It was the main reason cited by the Humberside Police for not sharing information about Ian Huntley before he murdered Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. Yet the Bichard report found that the Act had nothing to do with the failure, and pronounced that there was no reason for it to be revised. The Human Rights Act was blamed for the difficulties the Government faces in removing foreign offenders in just the same way.

These two Acts are unpopular with government because they protect the interests of the individual against the power of the state. This is also why any attempt by ministers to soften them, on any pretext, needs to be fiercely resisted.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principle Geotechnical Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Renewable Energy Construction Manager

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A cyclist rides by a Google self-driving car at the Google headquarters  

The driverless car puts us on the road to a ‘hands‑free’ world. But do we really want to go?

Alice Jones
Mathew Baynton (Gus) & Elizabeth Berrington (Marie)  

Plane-crash comedy makes it hard to laugh

David Lister
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices