Government databases slammed as ‘illegal’ and ‘ineffective’

One in four government super-databases “are almost certainly illegal" and should be “scrapped or substantially redesigned”, according to a scathing new report.


One in four government super-databases “are almost certainly illegal under human rights or data protection law”, and should be “scrapped or substantially redesigned”, according to a scathing new report.

The report, commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, also says more than half of the 46 largest databases have “significant problems with privacy or effectiveness” and fewer than 15 percent are “effective, proportionate and necessary”.

Professor Ross Anderson, Cambridge University

"Britain's database state has become a financial, ethical and administrative disaster which is penalising some of the most vulnerable members of our society. It also wastes billions of pounds a year and often damages service delivery rather than improving it.

"There must be urgent and radical change in the public-sector database culture so that the state remains our servant, not our master, and becomes competent to deliver appropriate public services that genuinely support and protect the people who most need its help."

In a damaging assessment of the “Transformational Government” programme aimed at improving public services through IT, the report by the Foundation for Information Policy Research, says the programme “was supposed to make public services better or cheaper, but it has been repeatedly challenged by controversies over effectiveness, privacy, legality and cost”.

It questions why Britain is “out of line” with other developed countries, centralising data instead of holding it locally. “The emphasis on data capture, form-filling, mechanical assessment and profiling damages professional responsibility and alienates the citizen from the state,” it says in the report. “Over two-thirds of the population no longer trust the government with their personal data.”

Eleven high-profile government databases should be “scrapped or substantially redesigned”, it says, because of illegal data collection or major operational problems.

Among these was the NHS Detailed Care Record, part of the £12.7 billion National Programme for IT. The report questioned why “many care providers can add their own comments, Wikipedia-style, without proper control or accountability” to such a sensitive database of information.

It also threatened the Summary Care Record with a “red light”, if patients are not able to opt out effectively.

The proposed super-database of all emails and phone calls also needs to be stopped immediately, as does the ID cards scheme, the national DNA database, and ContactPoint, an index of all children in England, it says.

Only six databases, including the TV licensing database, are encourage to go ahead by the report.

Government procurement needs to be subjected to much greater scrutiny, and only those people with the “ability to manage complex systems” should be allowed to run them, it says. The government’s chief information officer should report directly to a senior cabinet minister, it adds.

In a final call, it says the government must focus on what the technology delivers, rather than simply putting in complex systems for the sake of it. “Computer companies must never again drive policy,” it says.

A Home Office spokesperson 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."

"Common sense" would be applied to the use of databases, the spokesperson said.

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