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Scotland's secret files: A two-part expose of the Scottish database state

In this pair of articles, Kenneth Roy of the Scottish Review exposes the extent of the Scottish database state: the true nature of the long-awaited 'privacy principles' and the back-door introduction of a compulsory ID scheme for Scotland. In both cases, its children whose liberties are first on the line.
Kenneth Roy
7 February 2011

In this two-part exposé, Kenneth Roy, editor of the Scottish Review, reveals the true nature of the long-awaited 'privacy principles' and the back-door introduction of a compulsory ID scheme for Scotland. In both cases, it is the liberties of children that are first on the line. In addition to the intrinsic importance of what happens in Scotland, there are two reasons why everyone across the UK should be alert to warnings of this kind. OurKingdom and openDemocracy played a big role in the 2009 Convention on Modern Liberty. This was a"wake up call" about the dangers of the database state. The evidence it brought together shows that there is a driving state-culture pushing for the penetration of information on citizens and central control of that information, while people are far too complacent and trusting about what this process is, which is being developed with minimal publicity. This is the first reason. Second, from the Poll Tax to the Scottish Consitutional Convention, in both bad ways and good, what happens in Scotland today can impact on what happens in London tomorrow. This is a warning! 

Part I: The lives destroyed by Scotland's secret files

On Christmas Eve, probably the best day of the year for burying news, the Scottish government released its long-awaited 'privacy principles'. The verdict in the Sheridan trial swamped everything else – and then the world closed down for a fortnight. Well, it will not surprise you to learn that the privacy principles received no attention.

Now it is time to impart the good news.

An 'expert group' – whose members included one Jerry Fishenden of Microsoft UK as well as 'prominent lawyers and academics' – has recommended that 'large, centralised databases of people's personal information' should be avoided and that, instead, data should be kept in 'purpose-specific stores' only to be drawn together 'if there is a business need to do so'. What a business need is, or a purpose-specific store for that matter, I am unqualified to say.

And yet – having looked at the good news, the language employed, the assurances given such as they are – we at Scottish Review have come to the reluctant conclusion that the news isn't good after all.

It all depends what you – or rather they – mean by a large centralised database. Readers who have been following our series of articles on Scotland's surveillance culture will be aware that a series of linked databases is as intrusive, as damaging to civil liberties, as any centralised one.

Today we will show how part of this federation of databases operates and how it is destroying lives.

'Enhanced disclosure' of offences, as well as of charges not proceeded with, suspicions and associations, means that anyone who has been through the children's hearing system can be haunted by the experience in adult life. This is deeply ironical since the Scottish hearings, unlike the English juvenile courts, are supposed to be concerned with the welfare of the child, with care and support, rather than punishment. But in Scotland the punishment is longer-term. As long as a lifetime.

Current police rules are that information about children who have appeared before the hearings can be passed on to employers, training agencies and professional bodies until the person is 40 years old. Think about the implications of this draconian provision. It means that when the 12-year-old minor offender, having reached adulthood without further offending, applies for a job which involves association with children or vulnerable adults – as so many jobs do – a police record 10, 15 or 20 years old is produced, denying them the job. Even a job as a leisure attendant is outwith their reach. The same person is prohibited from helping out at a children's football club, or serving on the PTA, or volunteering at an older people's lunch club.

There is no right of appeal. There is no legal aid to challenge it.

The new Children's Hearings Act, recognising this injustice, will reduce the need for enhanced disclosure. This is a welcome concession, but it does not go nearly far enough. Nor does it dispose of the somewhat greater threat presented by Getting It Right For Every Child (Girfec), the comprehensive children's database whose tentacles were exposed by the Scottish Review last autumn.

Girfec is not just about offences. Girfec is about 'information'. This information can be passed on for many years and do immeasurable harm to a person's life. Yet much of it is based on pure hearsay.

Here are examples of the kind of information gathered in Girfec assessments:

'Believed to have been inappropriately sexually active underage'.

'Believed to be involved in the supply or use of illegal drugs'.

'Reported by a neighbour to have behaved sexually inappropriately towards another child'.

The unreliability of so much of this information – its essentially untested, unproven nature – is perhaps best illustrated by the example of the bullied child who has been told to 'stick up for himself' and confront his tormentor. If the Girfec assessment finds that the parents of the tormentor are 'respectable', the parents of the bullied child not so respectable, it is the bullied child who can end up being recorded as the aggressive party.

What right does the child have to see and dispute this 'information'? None. What right do the parents have? None.

Yet the information-sharing protocols adopted in Scotland mean that many others do have access to the files. We have it on good authority that among those with access are the headteacher, the teacher, the classroom assistant, the school secretary, the school nurse, the social worker, the administrators in the social work department, the police, the GP, the health worker, the Social Work Inspectorate. To what extent is the alleged security of the information respected? The evidence here must necessarily be anecdotal. One child law specialist told SR that she had personally heard social workers and teachers, in social settings, share privileged confidential information gained through their employment.

A child is a work in progress, not the finished article: that was the humanitarian principle on which the children's hearing system was based. Secret police records on the one hand, Girfec files on the other, make a mockery of this ethos. In too many cases the Scottish child is not a finished article, simply finished.


Part II: Scotland is introducing a compulsory ID scheme at the school gate

If you are aged 11 to 26 (and I suppose you're not), you might be thinking of applying for a Young Scot card. Out of interest, I had a look at what happens when you are accepted for this plastic. Here is what I read on the website of the Young Scot charity:

Got a Young Scot card?

Excellent stuff, cos now you can register your card right here and now. This means you can enter all the well cool competitions, and post your ideas/comments/messages on the Loud + Clear message boards. So make the most out of this site, and keep that smile on your face.

It'll only take ya about a nanosecond so don't be shy.

Nanoseconds I have at my disposal. Ya. So I had a closer look at the information I would have been asked to provide to get to the stage of registering my card. Among other things, I would have been asked to enter my nickname. No prob. I would have keyed in:

Difficult B

and moved on to the next question.

As one does.

But then I got to thinking (excellent stuff) about the possibility that Difficult B might one day appear in my profile in some database that I might not want to be part of but that I had signed up for without necessarily being aware of what I was doing, being too busy posting my ideas/comments/messages on the message boards, or simply being too young to take a mature decision about this or anything else.

So I phoned the Young Scot charity.

Got through in a nanosecond.

I said that, in theory, it was a splendid idea to have a card giving me a third off my bus fare; useful in pubs, too, I imagined, for proving my age, but that I was unhappy about the request for my nickname.

'Your nickname?' she repeated slowly.

'Ya.'

'We don't ask for nicknames,' she said.

Not so well cool any more.

The two of us talked a bit more and it emerged that the form I was looking at on the Young Scot website had been superseded by the National Entitlement Card. Still all those discount deals in stores and stuff, but now called something else and no longer requiring Difficult B to divulge his nickname.

The NEC (no relation to the National Executive Committee fondly remembered by some of us from the halcyon days of British trade unionism) offers 'the same great services' but has been created by the Scottish government, Young Scot, 'your' local council 'and lots of other organisations working together'. It is being promoted as 'a national card supported by the Scottish parliament'. Only us at the far from well cool Scottish Review remain sceptical.

I had a look at the application form published by one of the local authority partners in this enterprise. It asks me if I would agree to 'share' – beware that word – 'share' my personal details with 'departments and agencies of the council, other Scottish councils, Young Scot, the Scottish Executive and other agencies'. Who are the others? Shouldn't we be told? Do they include our friendly neighbourhood police or the social work department? It's all delightfully vague.

Not for sharing – except for the purposes of a statistical survey, apparently – is a range of other personal information. They want to know if I have a disability. What is my ethnic group? (No idea: I come from Bonnybridge). Educational background? (Easy: none). My employment status? (Unemployable). Before Christmas, there was even a suggestion that I might like to share details of any offences I had committed – only for a survey, naturally. (Blemish-free, so far. How boring am I?). That request appears to have been dropped suddenly. 

'Thank you for your email. The lack of content was down to an error on the Content Management System, which has now been fixed, and the Privacy Notice is displaying fully. Thank you for drawing it to our attention.' 

If I don't agree to share the basic information about myself, including my passport-sized photo, and instead perversely tick the opt-out box, life will be more difficult. I will get my card, but 'future services will need to be applied for separately'. How inconvenient. So, why am I being discriminated against? No reason.

But I have protection. There is something called a 'Privacy Policy' which I can view on the portal. I have a smile on my face, I'm making the most of the site, and, hey, I manage to access the portal. This is what I read under 'Privacy Statement':

The National Privacy Statement section does not contain any general content at this time. Please check back soon.

So, I email the Young Scot charity and ask why.

'I have passed on your email to the Digital Director, who will be in touch re. the privacy statement' is the reply.

Later the same day, Martin Dewar responds:

Thank you for your email. The lack of content was down to an error on the Content Management System, which has now been fixed, and the Privacy Notice is displaying fully. Thank you for drawing it to our attention.

None of this is deeply impressive. But if I am someone aged between 11 and 26, who has successfully applied for the card and failed to tick the opt-out box, I have agreed to share my personal details – for what purpose and with whom I am not entirely sure – but at least I have discounted fares on the buses, so I suppose everything is all right, really.

But it's not all right. It's far from all right.

In the FAQs on the Young Scot website, there is the following exchange:

Is this the start of a national ID scheme for Scotland?

No. It's completely voluntary.

This is no longer true. At Breadalbane Academy in Aberfeldy, and we believe at other schools in Perth and Kinross, pupils now need to carry a National Entitlement Card in order to gain access to their own education. Parents have been told that the system has been put in place 'to maximise security in the school building'.

Will Young Scot now amend its website to make it clear that the scheme is not completely voluntary? Scotland seems to be introducing a national ID scheme by stealth – at the school gate.

These two articles were originally published in the Scottish Review, of which Kenneth Roy is editor. 

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