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The database state we're in

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the co-founder of openDemocracy and author of The Lure of Greatness.

The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust has published a major report on the UK's Database State. Technology is transforming government, and there is an urgent need to control and understand it. 

One of the most irritating tropes of New Labour is its repeated claim to be “leading the world’ in whatever activity it has decided to highlight to the media. This was not merely a vanity of Tony Blair. If anything it has got worse under Gordon Brown, who is currently claiming to lead the world in saving the banking system.

However, there may be one area where the UK government is indeed pioneering a programme unequalled elsewhere. This is the creation of what is now being called ‘The Database State’. This describes the creation of very large databases at the heart of the UK departments of state, most of which it plans to join up. It is very much an all-British approach that may indeed be designed, at least in part, to compensate for the dis-uniting of the Kingdom by the rise of devolved governments in Scotland and Wales. The thinking behind the policies of the database state has not been properly debated in parliament and the press and the motivations behind it remain unprobed. Meanwhile, the tip of the iceberg is showing already as ID cards are being introduced for foreigners. The planned ID cards are not intended to be internal passports that enhance and confirm the identity of the citizen who holds it. They are rather electronic tags designed to monitor and even control those to whom they are issued. Cory Doctorow has described why he will leave the country rather than be forced to carry one.

The rise of the database state was one of the threats identified by those of us who called the recent Convention on Modern Liberty. While first advanced by the campaigning group NO2ID it is gaining in general usage, although sometimes in a way that may seem alarmist. One of the problems that strikes anyone attempting to debate the issue is it’s two-sided nature. On the one hand the construction of such vast systems of centralised surveillance is frightening enough if it works. Internalising the loss of privacy and sense tha the state knows everything of importance about you, will reduce the people to inner servility. The government is, in effect, modernising subjecthood. On the other had it can’t work.

We know three things: the larger the IT system the larger the number of errors it will generate, in this case errors that could result in lives being ruined by false results. Second, we know that the larger an IT system is the more valuable it is to hackers and the less secure it is likely to be. Third, we know that the more people who have access to a database the less secure it is likely to be. But the British government seems determined to create ever-larger databases that will be accessed by an ever growing number of poorly paid functionaries. We can therefore say with some confidence that Her Majesty’s Government has embarked on a course of action that is bound to go wrong. It should be opposed.

Up until now, the ‘Database State’ has remained more myth than fact in the way it is reported. All this is about to change.

The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, one of the original sponsors of the Convention has commissioned a careful survey of all the state databases that a distinguished group of experts could identify. They found 46. Of these they judged that only six are safe. The rest are either ‘Amber’ or ‘Red’. Many of the latter they found to be almost certainly illegal as well as dangerous.

You can find them listed in the Executive Summary below, while the whole report (in pdf) is available on the Rowntree website and is carried as well on the Conventions. For the first time we have a sober accounting of what is going on, something that Parliament should obviously have done for itself.

The quality of the report and the devastating calm of its prose can be judged from this passage:

The 2005 Transformational Government IT strategy promised citizens choice and personalisation in their interactions with government. However, this was to be based on centralised databases and data sharing across traditional provider and departmental boundaries. At its heart lay not people, but great collections of data about people. Meanwhile, two different faces of government were being joined up.

One is the public services agenda, which formalises our social compassion. It speaks of customers and choice, cares for vulnerable children, provides health and education, keeps the streets clean and generally seeks to please.

The other is the enforcing state, in constant conflict with those who break laws or ignore regulations. It seeks to exercise coercive control and speaks of enemies, targets, suspects and criminals.

The database state appears to fuse these two together. Increasingly users who should feel like a citizen or customer – responsible and in control – feel instead like a suspect or recidivist: fingerprinted, scanned, and their numberplates recorded as they travel around the country. But, as the police themselves freely admit, policing depends on continued public perceptions of legitimacy and fairness. [Nor can] technologies such as DNA profiling, databases and even CCTV be dissociated from ethical and social questions.

The authors as well as Rowntrees are to be congratulated on a fine job that will put the term ‘database state’ fully onto the map. Here we republish the short summary in article form for ease of access and I recommend anyone interested to download the full 68 page pdf and read it for yourself.


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