Page last updated at 15:44 GMT, Friday, 26 September 2008 16:44 UK

French to fight police database

Lord Erroll is quizzed over governments' access to personal data

David Reid reports on a storm brewing in France over plans to build a database to hold details of people considered likely to breach public order.

Civil liberties groups fear that the new police database, called Edvige, would significantly erode rights to privacy.

Although governments regularly gather and store data about citizens, Edvige would include information about the youngest members of society.

"These people could be filed starting from the age of thirteen with a very large amount of data on their life, on their relatives, on their friends, acquaintance…everything," says Meryem Marzouki from the French National Scientific Research Center (CNRS).

Children at risk

Justifying the creation of Edvige, Gerard Gachet, a spokesperson for the French Ministry of the Interior, says: "Unfortunately we have been confronted by an explosion in juvenile crime."

"If you want to put into force a preventative measure, you have to be able to list these young people in a dossier, and be able to go and see them. Or go and see their parents and say 'watch out', your son or daughter is at risk of falling into juvenile crime," he says.

Gérard Gachet, spokesperson for the French Ministry of the Interior
Gérard Gachet says the system would be a "preventative" measure

The row over Edvige led thousands of French people to sign an online petition which forced the French president Nicolas Sarkozy to revise plans.

Among the changes were the withdrawal of the proposal to include political activists, union leaders and religious leaders in the same dossier as potential delinquent youngsters.

Jean-Claude Vitran, from the human rights group Ligue des droits de l'Homme, fears what the data in Edvige will be used for.

"We could well imagine that the one day the extreme left could take power in a democratic country like ours. Then what happens to this information? What do we do? What we'll have is what happened in Eastern Europe 40 or 30 years ago. We'll have police files like the Stasi's," says Mr Vitran. "We don't want that."

Civil rights groups are continuing their fight against Edvige claiming that it will turn France into a Big Brother State. A ruling on the database is expected by the end of the year.

Loss leader

The fears many people have about the personal information filed away in databases goes further than worries about civil liberties or being bothered by junk mail.

Increasingly people are wondering if the organisations gathering sensitive personal information can be trusted to keep it safe.

In Europe the UK has taken the lead on losing data starting with the disappearance of discs containing the personal details of 25 million people in November 2007.

Jean-Claude Vitran, human rights group Ligue des droits de l'Homme
Jean-Claude Vitran has fears over the future use of stored data

The latest lapse took place in early September when a Home Office contractor lost a USB stick containing a variety of details about many of the UK's prisoners.

In response to the growing links between different public services in the late 70s, France created a national data protection authority CNIL to oversee how officials use and pass data.

Yann Padova, secretary general of CNIL, said stipulates that centralised data must be broken up into storage systems and access only allowed to those strictly authorised.

He added that bodies should avoid putting data on laptops or memory sticks because these can easily be lost.

"The more you centralise data, the more value it has," says Mr Padova, "and if someone cracks it, the more damaging it will be."

Data sharing between government departments can threaten its security. But the sharing of individuals' details between official bodies has also come under the spotlight.

Unlike the UK, every time information is shared between different parts of the French government, these need to permission from CNIL.

"The connection of many different public services can be a danger in itself," he says. "We are very strict in this data crossing from different public services."

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