Quarter of UK's databases are 'illegal'

Little thought given to privacy, study warns

Ben Russell,Home Affairs Correspondent
Monday 23 March 2009 01:00 GMT

One in four of the major government databases is almost certainly illegal and should be scrapped, a report says. The national DNA database, the proposed national identity database and the ContactPoint system, which will hold records of all children in England, are among the systems singled out for fundamental reform or abolition.

Researchers called for 11 systems assessed as "almost certainly illegal" under human rights or data protection law to be scrapped or substantially redesigned.

The study, by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, also pointed to significant legal and practical problems with a further 29 databases, including the national childhood obesity one and the planned NHS summary care record system, and said they should be reviewed independently. Privacy experts were asked to compile the report after two discs listing the entire child benefit database went missing in 2007. Researchers said data-sharing should be authorised only for strictly defined purposes, and said sensitive personal information should be collected and shared only with the individual's consent.

The report's co-author, Professor Ross Anderson of Cambridge University, said: "Britain's database state has become a financial, ethical and administrative disaster which is penalising some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Often, computerisation has been used as a substitute for public service reform rather than a means of enabling reform. Little thought is given to safety, privacy and value for money."

Researchers highlighted legal problems with systems that held sensitive data where there was "no effective opt-out" such as ContactPoint, the index planned to record English children's relationship with public services. The report said: "Many question the consequences of giving increasing numbers of civil servants daily access to our personal information. Objections range from cost through efficiency to privacy. The emphasis on data capture, form-filling, mechanical assessment and profiling damages professional responsibility and alienates the citizen from the state."

A Home Office spokeswoman said: "We recognise the absolute necessity of striking the balance between the rights and privacy of the individual and the ability to disrupt, prevent and investigate crime effectively. That is why the Home Secretary [Jacqui Smith] has made it clear that a 'common sense' test must be applied to every action in this area to make sure it is proportionate, transparent and robust safeguards are in place.

"For example, the National Identity Scheme and ID cards will have independent oversight built in from the start, with every citizen given the right to see their data and who has accessed it. Technology such as DNA and CCTV is providing clear benefits in deterring and detecting crime, securing convictions and reducing fear of crime."

'Criminal' records Singled out for abolition

*National DNA Database

Holds 4 million individual profiles


A national index of all children in England

*The NHS Secondary Users Service

Summaries of hospital and other treatments

*The Common Assessment Framework

Children's welfare needs


A Home Office system used to determine whether young people are at risk of offending

*Dept for Work and Pensions data sharing programme

Matches data with government and outside agencies

*Audit Commission National Fraud Initiative

Matches data within central and local government bodies to detect fraud and error

*The Prum framework

An international agreement which allows police information to be shared


*Communications database Would bring together details of emails, telephone calls and web use

*National Identity Register Will store biographical information and biometric data linked to ID cards

*The NHS Detailed Care Record Will hold GP and hospital records

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