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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 April 2004, 11:07 GMT 12:07 UK
What does the state know about us?
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Online

The octopus of government knows all about us
Plans for a national ID card could mean a record of your iris, your fingerprint or the shape of your head being held by the state. But one way and another, the state already holds a wealth of information on file about us.

With many functions of government farmed out, the information held on us is spread thinly across a myriad of agencies and offices.

If you drive a car, commit a crime, pay taxes, claim benefits, apply for a passport, buy a house, marry, have children, die, or register to vote you are slowly dripping titbits into the UK's information pot.

Police files

Exactly what can and cannot be kept by the police has been a hot topic in recent months with the Bichard Inquiry into mistakes in the investigation of Soham murderer Ian Huntley.

The Police National Computer mainly holds details of convictions and of the victims.
Public Records Office
Family Records Office
Your GP and hospital
Home Office
Inland Revenue

These are the kind of things that would show up in a basic vetting search.

But for those applying for jobs with unsupervised access to children or vulnerable people, an "enhanced" search will also show up those suspected of a crime or involvement with criminals, with everything from cautions to snippets of "soft" intelligence from local police forces on the menu.

You can apply to your local police force to find out what they know and what is held about you on computer, although some information might be omitted.

A national database also currently holds the DNA of 2.5 million people convicted or suspected of crimes, with 5.5 million fingerprints also on record. The Home Office says the DNA database has led to 460,000 matches with samples taken during investigations.

Senior police officers want every person's DNA recorded to fight crime, although civil rights groups oppose any such move, saying there is a danger firms could eventually gain access to and exploit the information.

Motoring authorities

For those who own a car, the Driver Vehicle Licensing Agency knows where you live. It knows if you have been guilty of minor traffic infringements like speeding within the last four years, and of major offences like drink driving within 11 years.

But much of its filing is car-based rather than driver based - it knows what owners a car has had but cannot search for a history of all the bad buys you have made from the classifieds.

Mr Taxman

Much information about you has a time limit, with some spent convictions wiped and other snippets deleted after a set period.

A single centralised database... makes it less secure
Barry Hugill
The taxman knows no such rules. It keeps the information it takes from you until it sees fit to destroy it. And the taxman knows plenty, more in fact than many of your close relatives.

The Inland Revenue may know what jobs you've had, how much you've been paid, and what you spend your money on.

It requires a court order to divulge this information, unless the request is from the police under the Crime and Terrorism Act. The information is also shared with the Department of Work and Pensions so they can process benefit claims. The DWP also passes information back to the taxman.

How can you find out?

You can get hold of the files held by many organs of government through the guidelines based on the Freedom of Information Act, which will come fully into force in January, with a request costing 20.

This is about recognising the massive change that's taken place in the world
David Blunkett

Some departments will have lists of those people they hold files on, but some - like the Home Office - cannot say without a search being made. And there is no guarantee that any file will not be restricted for security reasons.

And then there is the electoral roll. The record of who lives where, taken to determine voting rights, has been the junk mail marketer's friend for many years.

Now the rules have been changed and you can disappear from the publicly available version of the list, but not from the list that credit agencies use to rate you.

Perhaps the area that generates the most concern is health records, which civil liberties campaigners fear could eventually be compromised by insurance companies and employers.


Assistant Information Commissioner David Smith said the sharing of medical records with anyone other than health professionals involved in your case would be "a breach of the Data Protection Act and of the duty of confidence".

MI5 headquarters, London
MI5: 'You could try...'
One exception would be if a doctor chose to volunteer information such as if he diagnosed a bus driver with blackouts and suspected he would not inform his employers.

Asked whether you could get hold of your file from MI5, Mr Smith responds: "You could try."

A request can now be made for the disclosure of files to much of government, but Mr Smith said matters relating to national security were excepted.

"The security services used to object, saying it would give away who they kept information on."

Barry Hugill, of Liberty, said the major objection was to the danger of the government rationalising all records in a format that would not be secure.

"What the government is looking at doing is transferring numerous records, all going into a single centralised database. This makes it less secure.

"Hundreds of thousands of people will have access to private details without good reason."


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