Hysteria clouds database debate

Hysteria clouds database debate

We must keep our heads and focus on what is important in the great data debate

First, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) lost 25 million people’s details in the post. Then agencies as varied as the DVLA and the Ministry of Defence confessed to similar problems.

It is absolutely right that the government’s apparent inability to establish sensible checks on data access, and failure to keep track of its laptops should provoke a thoroughgoing review.

And it is also right that processes and procedures that worked for paper files are not necessarily sufficient for the electronic equivalent because of both the volume of data and its portability.

What is not right, however, is for assessment of the very real issues to be sidetracked by hysteria.
The DNA database is a case in point.

It was but a small step for the public debate to move from HMRC’s lost CDs, to questions about the government’s competence to secure the proposed national ID card system. And only a small step further to a reprise of hand-wringing about Big Brother and the surveillance society.

Yet it took only two DNA-based convictions for headline-grabbing violent crimes ­ – in Ipswich and Croydon – ­ for calls for a mandatory national DNA database to start.

The trumpeted British libertarianism suddenly looks like hot air. Or, worse, simple politics.

And that’s not all. In the wake of the HMRC fiasco, the government has been repeatedly accused of an obsession with databases.

But the point is nonsensical. Databases are not a political position. They are simply a way to store information. They are used by every organisation, in every developed economy. And to suggest that the use of technology is inimically linked to control freakery and surveillance is facile.

There are serious questions to be answered ­ – about how much information is held, how it is linked together, and who has access to what.

But the debate is in danger of being undermined by histrionics.