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

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Yvette Cooper campaigning in London at the launch of Labour’s women’s manifesto  

I want the Labour Party to lead a revolution in family support

Yvette Cooper
Liz Kendall  

Labour leadership contest: 'Moderniser' is just a vague and overused label

Steve Richards
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine