Quarter of state databases "should be scrapped"

LONDON (Reuters) - A quarter of government databases in Britain should be scrapped or redesigned because they are fundamentally flawed and probably illegal, a report from a social justice think-tank said on Monday.

A generic picture of a computer keyboard. REUTERS/Catherine Benson

The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust (JRRT) said a review of 42 major state databases had only found six which were acceptable in terms of their impact on individuals’ privacy.

The rest it either graded “red” or “amber” under a traffic light rating assessing whether they were illegal under human rights or data protection law, or collected and shared sensitive data without consent or a proper legal basis.

Among databases graded as “red” and recommended for closure or redesign were the ContactPoint record of children’s educational and social progress, as well as the NHS Detailed Care Record, which aims to share confidential GP patient records across the health service.

“There must be urgent and radical change in the public-sector database culture so that the state remains our servant, not our master,” said report co-author Ross Anderson, Professor of Security Engineering at Cambridge University.

“Too often, computerisation has been used as a substitute for public service reform rather than a means of enabling reform. Little thought is given to safety, privacy and value for money.”

The report, written for the JRRT by the Foundation for Information Policy Research, also gave its red card to the planned ID cards register, the National DNA Database and ONSET, a profiling system used to assess potential youth offenders.

But the police’s National Fingerprint Database, the BBC’s TV Licensing system and data kept for council tax returns were all judged to have minimal privacy concerns and were judged “green.”

“The government must urgently adopt a principled, proportionate, less centralised approach to collecting personal information that takes real account of our privacy and is based on the consent of individuals and families,” said Conservative Justice Spokesman Eleanor Laing.

The Conservatives have pledged to scrap ID cards and ContactPoint if they return to power at the next election, due to be held by mid-2010.

Lib Dem home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne said the report exposed the government’s obsession with hoarding information.

“In their desperation to track our every move, ministers have created a glut of databases, many of which are quite simply illegal,” he said.

The Ministry of Justice said the report had no real evidence to base its assessment about the impact on people’s privacy.

However it said it would consider an concerns carefully and adapt existing safeguards where necessary.

Reporting by Tim Castle