Tuesday, August 17, 2004

State Databases a 'Threat to Civil Liberties'

http://thescotsman.scotsman.com/index.cfm?id=950022004

Tue 17 Aug 2004
Increase in state databases 'a threat to civil liberties' JAMES KIRKUP

THE government has lost control of the growing network of state databases monitoring every aspect of modern life, presenting dangers for basic liberties, a senior Labour MP warned yesterday. John Denham, a former Home Office minister who is sometimes seen as an "outrider" for Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, and his political followers, called for a set of rules limiting the spread of so-called Big Brother databases, and clearly defining citizens’ rights to see and correct their records. Mr Denham made his warning after Richard Thomas, the information commissioner, reiterated his concerns about the government’s plan for national identity cards. As well as the ID card system, both the Treasury and the Office for National Statistics are developing their own databases for tracking the identities of every adult in the country. A database of all British children is also planned, and the House of Commons home affairs select committee has criticised the duplication. Mr Denham, who chairs the committee, said that there are too many identity tracking systems and too little control of them from the government. "There is no clear sense that any one person in government has got a way of seeing whether these different systems should fit together, where they would be kept separate and where there is a proper legal basis for them," Mr Denham said. "That’s where the dangers come from - overlapping projects, a lack of clarity about what each part of the system is meant to do and no clear rules about when and where you can or can’t share data," he told BBC Radio 4. Mark Oaten, the Lib Dem home affairs spokesman, agreed with Mr Denham, saying the spread of ID tracking systems shows "a new zeal in the corridors of Whitehall for intervening in the lives of individuals. "These projects may appear harmless, but the danger is that over time they will change the relationship between the state and the man on the street," Mr Oaten said. "Inappropriate sharing of information, about medical, behavioural or financial problems for example, could encourage discrimination." Mr Thomas, who oversees Whitehall’s use of information about citizens, yesterday kept up his criticism of government plans, warning that we risk "sleepwalking into a surveillance society". In an interview with the Times, Mr Thomas warned against a situation "where much more information is collected about people, accessible to far more people shared across many more boundaries than British society would feel comfortable with". Although ministers have said that they will not make the planned ID card scheme compulsory, numerous government plans are already being based on the assumption that a comprehensive database of personal information will be available. Hazel Blears, a Home Office minister, who yesterday revealed plans for the systematic tracking of the children of criminals in England and Wales, rejected criticism of the government’s approach. "What we are trying to do is put in place some very practical measures to make sure that we have got identity cards so that people are using the right identity. "We know that there are some pretty serious and organised criminals out there who use false identities to traffic people, to launder money, to do drug smuggling," she said on Sky News. "And I think it is really important that we use whatever methods we can - using technology, using new approaches - to make sure that we prevent and disrupt this kind of organised crime." But it is not just government databases that are causing concern. Civil-rights campaigners have also expressed alarm about systems run by transport bodies and even supermarkets. Some smartcard season ticket systems like London’s Oyster card are linked to a central computer that can keep a record of every journey made by every cardholder. Even loyalty cards used by big retailers store more information about the holders than many people realise. "Your storecard can tell us everything there is to know about you, including your diet and your income," said Barry Hugill, of Liberty, a civil rights group. "It’s very hard to see why we need any more databases when there are so many already."

This article: http://thescotsman.scotsman.com/index.cfm?id=950022004