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Database State: over a quarter govt databases illegal and disproportionate

Database State, research by Anderson et al commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd, examines all of the public-sector databases and finds that a quarter are illegal. Fewer than 15% had a proper legal basis for the intrusions upon privacy and were effective, proportionate and necessary

“Of the 46 databases assessed in this report only six are given the green light. That is, only six are found to have a proper legal basis for any privacy intrusions and are proportionate and necessary in a democratic society. Nearly twice as many are almost certainly illegal under human rights or data protection law and should be scrapped or substantially redesigned, while the remaining 29 databases have significant problems and should be subject to an independent review.”

Introduction by David Shutt, Lord Shutt of Greetland, Chair of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd.

The report says that the databases set up each had an aim and rationale but that too often the public are not in fact helped or protected by what has become increasingly complicated and intrusive information shared about our lives. One quarter of the public-sector databases the report examined are almost certainly illegal under human rights or data protection law. More than half have significant problems and could be challenged legally. Fewer than 15% of the databases reviewed had a proper legal basis for the intrusions upon privacy and were effective, proportionate and necessary. In Britain our information is increasingly held centrally, and shared between a wide number of agencies, unlike other developed countries.

Sharing data is not as beneficial as claimed and can harm vulnerable people in a variety of ways, not least because it can lead to discrimination and stigmatisation.

The report assessed all the public databases using a traffic light system. Red means it is almost certainly illegal under human rights or data protection law and should be scrapped or substantially redesigned. There may not be a proper legal basis for the collection or sharing of data, it may be disproportionate or done without our consent. Examples include; the high profile ContactPoint, now disbanded, the electronic Common Assessment Framework which holds children’s welfare information, the NHS Detailed Care Record, ONSET, a Home Office system that gathers information from many sources which tries to predict which children will offend in the future; amongst many others.

Amber means that a database has significant problems and may be unlawful. Examples include the National Pupil Database and NHS Summary Care Record.

The report includes a story of ‘Stephen’ to show how having your information shared on databases can be harmful.

“Stephen is fourteen and lives with his mum in Nottingham. He is listed on all the big databases that every youngster is on nowadays: ContactPoint gives links to all the public services he has used; the NHS Care Record Service has his medical records; the National Pupil Database has his school attendance, disciplinary history and test results; he is on the Child Benefits Database, and also on the National Identity Register since he applied for a passport; the Government Gateway has a record of all his online interactions with public services; and the ITSO smartcard he uses for local bus services and discount rail fares has been tracking him ever since his mum refilled it with her bank card. His mother frets about all this – when she was a teenager in the 1980s, things like medical and school records were all kept on paper. And although the family has always kept its phone number ex-directory and always ticks the ‘no information’ box, they get ever more junk mail. More and more of it is for Stephen. Like millions of children, he is on a few more databases besides. After an operation to remove a bone tumour, he needed an orthopaedic brace for two years, which brought him into the social care system. As his teachers could see from ContactPoint that he was known to social workers, they expected less of him, and he started doing less well at school. The social care system also led to his being scanned for ONSET, a Home Office system that tries to predict which children will become offenders. The Police National Database told ONSET that Stephen’s father – who left home when he was two and whom he does not remember – had spent six months in prison for fraud, so the computer decided that Stephen was likely to offend. When he was with some other youths who got in a fight, the police treated him as a suspect rather than a witness, and he got cautioned for affray.

Ten years later, after he thought he had put all this behind him and completed an MSc in vehicle testing technology, Stephen finds that the government’s new Extended Background Screening programme picked up his youthful indiscretion and he can not get the job he had hoped for at the Department of Transport. He tries to get jobs in the private sector, but the companies almost all find excuses to demand EBS checks. Two did not, but one of them picked up the fact that he had been treated for cancer; all cancer data is passed to cancer registries whether the patient likes it or not, and made available to all sorts of people and firms for research. Given the decline in the NHS since computerisation, most decent employers offer generous private health insurance – so they are not too keen to hire people who have had serious illnesses.”

Read in full: Database State 

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