Knowing me, knowing you

Bigger databases may mean greater efficiency for the state and private sector, but they could also mean more unwelcome intervention into our personal lives. SA Mathieson reports

In 2004, I spoke to up and coming MP David Cameron (my local MP, who I profiled here) about his opposition to government database plans such as identity cards. In 2011, as prime minister, he caused this to happen.

All articles on ID cards.

Read more about ID cards in my book, Card declined: How Britain said no to ID cards, three times over – including the full version of the interview with David Cameron.

Powered by article titled “Knowing me, knowing you” was written by SA Mathieson, for The Guardian on Thursday 24th June 2004 01.49 UTC

If you vote, you can do so because your name is on an electoral roll, a database managed by your council. That database is to become national or part of a linked national system. Meanwhile, your council is probably joining up much of the data it holds on you.

The trend towards bigger databases, combining the local with the national, the specific with the multipurpose, can be seen across the state sector. Six national projects are planned or under way, merging or linking databases or building new ones.

Councils are implementing customer relationship management (CRM) systems – those in England are required to do so by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. This normally means putting most of their data on citizens on a single database, but sensitive material such as that from social services is kept separate.

Why the rush to big databases? David Cameron, Conservative MP and a member of the home affairs select committee, says that the government suffers from an “excuse culture”, referring to what is likely to become the key government database, the National Identity Register, used for identity cards. “Because there’s a problem of illegal immigra tion, of asylum, of crime, the national identity card and register became a cure-all, the great answer – rather than having proper policies,” he says.

The register plans seem to overlap with those for a Citizen Information Project, which could be due to interdepartmental rivalry. But the two register schemes may cooperate.

Some countries use population registers to make life more convenient. Here, councils are introducing CRM to allow call centres or offices to deal with requests ranging from library book renewals to abandoned cars. The project would allow you to change your address across all state agencies in one go, while the NHS Care Records Service will make your medical notes available to any walk-in centre or A&E ward you visit.

Joined-up databases are also useful for their owners. Some councils have used CRM to cut costs. Another justification is that the specific-function government databases need a spring clean. There are some 82m national insurance numbers, for example, far more than the UK’s adult population.

In some cases, the database would be a byproduct. The Commission for Integrated Transport, an independent government-funded adviser said in 2002 that vehicle tracking would allow sophisticated road tolling.

Such databases should make life easier for government investigators. Those on children aim to detect abuse by bringing together concerns, rather than detailed information, entered by agencies that deal with them.

Some will see any big government databases as worrying, although official investigators have rules: for example, the Home Office says the police do not have access to health records without a patient’s consent, although much of the supervision of such work takes place in secret.

There are other drawbacks. If you want to access individual NHS records, you currently need to break into each person’s GP surgery to obtain files. The NHS Care Records Service database will have far better security than one surgery, but it will provide remote access, and a hacker might only need to find a way in once.

Richard Allan MP, the Liberal Democrat IT spokesman, says database building may come back to haunt the government. “A lot of attention has been focused on identity cards, but it’s really these databases that have the potential to change the relationship between state and citizen.” He thinks they may have more to do with performance management than improving services. “I think they appeal to a centralising government that is addicted to targets.”

In retailing, big customer databases are used to track, analyse and influence customers’ behaviour, though membership is voluntary. A few councils are following suit. Southampton city council’s points-for-rewards smartcard is used to pay for school meals at a secondary school: pupils get points for choosing healthy meals. The Department of Health has backed a similar scheme at a Coventry school, where pupils get points for healthy breakfasts and pre-school exercise classes. The London borough of Southwark’s Karrot scheme for teenagers awards points for school attendance, punctuality and good behaviour.

Politicians have tried to change behaviour with “sin taxes” and advertising. Joined-up databases could do this more efficiently: why tell everyone about the evils of smoking when you could target smokers through the Care Records Service? Such ideas would require individuals’ permission. But pressure is growing for state intervention in previously personal areas, such as obesity. The big databases that would be required are already under construction.

Tracking devices

· Citizen Information Project: National Statistics plans a population register of everyone in the UK, providing one place to update details and improving government statistics.

· National Identity Register: to be built from scratch for the ID card scheme. To include every UK adult, subject to parliamentary vote, it will include reference numbers for databases such as national insurance and NHS numbers, and biometric measurements.

· NHS Care Records Service: the national project has started building a patient database to contain summary medical records for all in England.

· Coordinated Online Register of Electors: plans are to merge or link the electoral rolls managed by all UK local authorities.

· Local databases of all children in England are being trialled.

· The Department for Transport will produce a feasibility study on installing tracking devices in all vehicles this summer, allowing road pricing.

· Private sector databases include credit reference agencies, loyalty cards and bank databases of card data.

National Statistics Citizen Information Project
Home Office identity card scheme
National Programme for IT (NHS Care Records Service)
Coordinated Online Register of Electors consultation
Commission for Integrated Transport on road-pricing
Southampton smartcard scheme
Coventry breakfast and exercise scheme
Karrot scheme in Southwark © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

Published via the Guardian News Feed plugin for WordPress.