The Sorry State of Our Database State

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I've written a number of times about the manifold weaknesses in the UK's ID card/ID database scheme. That on its own would be worrying enough, but sadly it forms just part of an over-arching ambition by the present UK government to construct a database state.

Evidence for that can be seen in the national DNA database, infamous not just for its disproportionate size, but also by virtue of the large number of innocent people whose DNA it holds, and in the total communications surveillance to be provided by the Interception Modernisation Programme.

Now it seems that the Independent Safeguarding Authority's vetting database must join the list:

Guidance for the controversial Independent Safeguarding Authority states that youths who want to help vulnerable groups will have to be vetted "in time for their 16th birthday to avoid committing an offence".

Trainee teachers and medical students will also have to pay £64 to have their backgrounds checked for sex offences before they are allowed to start work

.…

The new disclosures show the true scope of the database, which the Government admits will be the "largest of its kind in the world" and eventually include some 11.3 million names.

The corrosive effect of this expansion is explored in a new report from the Manifesto Club, called: “Regulating Trust: Who will be on the Vetting Database?” (.pdf), which rightly points out:

The vetting database is based on the following assumptions: that many adults could abuse a child if they had the chance; that it is repeated meeting and the child’s resulting ‘trust’ which gives them the chance; and that it is the role of the state to monitor and supervise the conditions in which trusting relationships occur.

This wrong in principle: as Philip Pullman said, it sends the message ‘that the default position of one human being to another is predatory rather than kindness’. It is also wrong in practice, and wrong as a basis for social policy. This briefing document shows the surreal consequences of the state attempting to define and then regulate ‘relationships of trust’. It cannot be done: the result is an absurd tangle of bureaucracy, which makes little sense and has all the appearance of a system designed to catch people out.

As the report makes abundantly clear, the guidelines are confused and contradictory, and seem guaranteed to make even the most trivial of activities suspect. That seems to be the point:

The Guidance advises that ‘providers should review the status of the activity from time to time’. Again, officials are requiring people to always have bureaucracy on their minds: to constantly count the number of children in their class, and consider whether they fit with the ‘merely incidental’ rule.

In other words, the Guidance wants everyone to suspect everyone – particularly those that refuse, for whatever reason, to submit to this process. The government is quite open about this, according to the report:

Official publications present being monitored as in itself a sign of an adult’s decency. Equally, not being monitored is a sign of their suspicion. When I challenged the Home Office official in charge of the vetting database about a potential rebellion against vetting, he said that if somebody didn’t want to be vetted ‘there must be suspicious reasons for that’. He described the vetting database as like a ‘club’, which all decent adults should want to be part of. This assumption – that not being monitored makes you de facto suspicious - is hardwired into the logistics of the vetting database.

It's the old trick: if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. And, as ever, it conveniently overlooks the fact that some of us believe we have the a right to privacy, to not being under surveillance, as a default. In fact, even the most rabid authoritarian politicians would have to agree if pressed: after all, if they really believed the lie about having nothing to hide implying nothing to fear, they would welcome CCTV cameras in their bedrooms – just in case, you know.

The irony – and tragedy – of the database state is that doesn't achieve what it purports to enable: more surveillance actually makes us less safe, because it devalues it. In the case of the vetting database:

When the question of child abuse becomes a matter for constant mass regulation, the procedure also becomes worryingly anodyne. The Guidance discusses the ways for employers to ‘Manage your subscriptions’ to individuals, including options to ‘add subscription’, ‘delete subscription’ or ‘sort subscriptions’.

The government's approach actually manages to trivialise an extremely important area by turning it into just another pervasive and annoying bureaucratic system that everyone uses without thinking. It's the same for ID cards: if they are ever fully implemented, they will weaken our overall security by encouraging people to depend on them routinely rather than on their own knowledge and instincts. Once criminals and terrorists manage to subvert the system – as they will, by bribes or blackmail – they will then have perfect credentials for committing their crimes *more* easily than before.

The reason for this disconnect between what the government promises will flow from its database state and the reality, is simple: the vast majority of politicians, particularly at the top, do not understand the technology. To borrow a phrase from elsewhere, they seem to believe – and their well-paid IT consultants are only too happy to let them believe – that technology is a kind of magic pixie dust that can be sprinkled on hard problems to solve them.

Unfortunately, as readers of this blog well know, that is far from the case. Indeed, it is not unknown for brute-force technological solutions to make the problems they seek to solve even worse. Sadly, it looks like we must all suffer from massively-intrusive and yet ineffectual schemes like ID cards and the Independent Safeguarding Authority's vetting database as the government finds this out the hard way.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter and identi.ca.

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