Leading article: Personal privacy and the power of the State


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.

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