Monday, 23 March 2009

Discrediting databases

The Rowntree report into the database state is well worth reading in its entirety (pdf) - if you like scaring yourself, or wanting to prove to yourself the old adage that "just because you're paronoid, it doesn't mean they're not after you". But I would like to draw attention these paragraphs, which I think get to the heart of the matter - why the database state is not merely inefficient, costly and wrong in principle but why it is deeply dangerous, not just to society, but to the very soul.


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. Technologies such as DNA profiling, databases and even CCTV cannot be dissociated from ethical and social questions.

The database state can undermine people’s desire to participate in desirable and socially responsible activities, from seeking confidential advice for teenage health issues to showing cooperative goodwill towards law enforcement.


The emerging system - the product, as I've said before, of a dysfunctional, virtually autistic official mindset - is bad for democracy, bad for individuals, bad even for the officials who have to operate it, generally decent people "doing their job" who find themselves at the operating end of a giant surveillance machine. Its psychological impact has only just begun to be imagined, but a big clue may lie in the point about undermining people's desire to participate. Part of this comes from the fear that, for example, conversations with your doctor may not be completely confidential. Indeed, your doctor is no longer your doctor, an independent professional relating to you as a fellow human being, but has become an agent of the all-knowing state processing yet another citizen-statistic. (Are you on statins yet? I have to meet the target.)

But it's wider even than that. When the state behaves like an omniscient God, looking after you but expecting docile compliance in return, it saps the will. Relationships between individuals and between people and local institutions become mediated by the state, your very identity becomes something owned not by you but by the government, which the state graciously lends you in return for filling in a form and paying a fee.

The report warns that "the supertanker will not be turned quickly". Indeed not. Too much money has been spent already, too many careers have been built on the back of these databases, and the systems, furthermore, represent the collective wisdom of the administrative classes. But there has been a small victory, in the abandonment (for now) of the worst data-sharing proposals in the Coroners and Justice Bill. That happened because of organised opposition - evidence that as knowledge has spread of what the government is up to, so has disquiet. This suggests to me that there is something unnatural and disturbing about the database state. Despite the rosy picture painted by ministers, people do not rush to embrace the all-knowing leviathon, they do not assume that the government is innately trustworthy or necessarily benign (unless they are Polly Toynbee or David Aaronovitch, of course), they do not naturally love Big Brother.

Google's launch of its StreetView program this weekend turned into a PR disaster as scores of complaints were received about the intrusiveness of many of its images. The Independent - hunting for pictures of politicians' front doors - discovered photographs of naked children playing on the public-access site. Is it too optimistic to see in the controversy the first signs of a society rediscovering the importance of privacy? Google may have misjudged the public mood - but it may also be suffering a backlash provoked by the government's own love of mass surveillance. Intriguingly, the Rowntree report's authors claim to have detected "a sense in the senior civil service and among politicians that the personal data issue is now career-threatening and toxic". An accident waiting to happen, in other words.

While New Labour remains in power relatively little will be done to dismantle the database state. But the combination of a new government, legal challenges and - perhaps most importantly - a ruinous national budget deficit may eventually turn back the tide. Otherwise there will one day be a huge scandal. Of course, Gordon Brown will be long gone by then.

2 comments:

Dungeekin said...

No doubt the Goonvernment will shortly announce a Consolidation Project to move all the databases into one big database.

Won't that go well....

D

Grumpy Bob said...

They tried that with clause 152 (now withdrawn) of the coroners bill. I found the brief vignette "Stephen's Story" rather informative of the kind of effects the database state may bring.