Page last updated at 10:33 GMT, Monday, 23 March 2009

Call to scrap 'illegal databases'

USB stick and laptop
The UK spends more than 16bn per year on government databases

A quarter of all government databases are illegal and should be scrapped or redesigned, according to a report.

The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust says storing information leads to vulnerable people, such as young black men, single parents and children, being victimised.

It says the UK's "database state" wastes billions from the public purse and often breaches human rights laws.

But the government says the report contains "no substantive evidence" on which to base its conclusions.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said the government was "never losing sight" of its obligations under the data protection and human rights acts.

"It takes its responsibilities seriously and will consider any concerns carefully, adapting existing safeguards where necessary," he added.

The government spends £16bn a year on databases and plans to spend a further £105bn on projects over five years but does not know the precise number of the "thousands" of systems it operates, the trust claims.

DATABASES CRITICISED
ContactPoint: To hold name, address, gender, date of birth, school and health provider of every child in England
National DNA database: Of 4.5m people whose genetic fingerprints are on the database, more than 500,000 are innocent, including 39,000 children
Communications database: Plan to centralise details of calls and websites visited from phone companies and internet providers, open to 510 public authorities
Onset: A profiling tool which examines a child's behaviour and social background to identify potential child offenders
Detailed Care Record: When rolled out, will allow hospitals, GPs nurses and social workers to update patient's records with unmonitored "wikipedia-style" entries
Source: Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust

In the wake of numerous data loss scandals, the cross-party trust - which campaigns for civil liberties and social justice - examined 46 public sector systems.

It said 11 were "almost certainly" illegal under human rights or data protection laws.

These included the national DNA database and ContactPoint, an index of biographical and contact information on all children in England which notes their relationship with public services.

ContactPoint, intended to aid child protection, has been criticised by opponents, who say at £224m it is too costly and could put children at risk if security is lax.

When examining criminal justice systems, the trust discovered one woman's caution over a playground fight when she was 13 will stay on the Police National Computer until she is 100.

Meanwhile, the genetic fingerprints of nearly four-in-10 black men aged under 35 were held on the DNA database in England, where records are not deleted even when people are acquitted or released without charge, the report claimed.

Author, Professor Ross Anderson of Cambridge University, said: "Britain's database state has become a financial, ethical and administrative disaster which is penalising some of the most vulnerable members of our society."

Co-author Terri Dowty, director of Action on Rights for Children, said systems such as Onset - a tool for identifying potential youth offenders - can stigmatise youngsters.

Professor Ross Anderson outlines the problems with the databases

With programmes under way to store Onset assessments and make them available to police, the information could cloud officers' judgement, she said.

Ms Dowty said the fear of being monitored was such that young mothers were covering up their post-natal depression or not taking children to casualty for fear of triggering social services involvement.

Meanwhile, the Department for Work and Pensions is developing an £89m data-sharing system for anyone issued with a National Insurance number, accessible to 140,000 government staff and 445 local authorities.

Staff at 30 councils have already abused the system and information has been made available to private firms, according to the trust.

"The problem with a lot of these information systems is the number of people who have access to them. It's the slack attitude to data security which is most worrying," said Ms Dowty.

The trust wants the government to store data more transparently and to allow sensitive information to be shared only with people's consent, or at least when subject to clear legal rules.

DATA PROTECTION ACT
People can make a 'subject access request' to gain - and correct - information held on them by government departments
This also applies to banks, councils, schools, health services, employers, internet and mail order firms
Requests are made in writing or by email, stating full name and address including postcode
The act allows you to ask organisations to stop using your information for marketing by mail, phone, fax, email and text message.
You may be refused all or some information, if there is a 'good reason' - for example, it is being used in criminal investigations
Source: Information Commissioner's Office

But the report claims civil servants and politicians do not want to address the issue in case it damages their career.

"Like Chernobyl, some brave souls need to go in and sort it out," it says.

Peers on the Lords constitution committee warned last month that electronic surveillance and collection of personal data had become "pervasive" in British society and threatened to undermine democracy.

The Data Protection Act requires organisations to allow individuals to see and amend information held about them on request, barring a good reason for withholding it - such as that its release would impede a criminal investigation.

It also allows people to demand organisations stop using their details.

Conservative justice spokeswoman Eleanor Laing said: "The government must urgently adopt a principled, proportionate, less centralised approach to collecting personal information that takes real account of our privacy and is based on the consent of individuals and families."

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne said: "In their desperation to track our every move, ministers have created a glut of databases, many of which are quite simply illegal."

A Home Office spokesman said ministers were committed to "striking the balance" between individuals' rights and the ability to fight crime, with DNA testing and CCTV providing "clear benefits".

Tests were carried out to make sure measures were proportionate, transparent and featured safeguards, he said.



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