Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Children's Databases: Safety and Privacy

The Foundation for Information Policy Research are releasing a report today for the Information Commissioner entitled Children's Databases: Safety and Privacy explaining that the government's blanket surveillance approach to child safety is actually going to put children at risk.

The reports authors are:

Professor Ross Anderson, University of Cambridge,
Terri Dowty, Director, Action on Rights for Children,
Dr Richard Clayton, University of Cambridge,
Professor Douwe Korff, London Metropolitan University,
Dr Eileen Munro, London School of Economics,
Dr Ian Brown, UCL,

so you can guarantee it is worth reading.

Elsewhere on a similar theme, the New Statesman decided not to publish this excellent article from Dave Hill about the Children's Index. It would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall at the New Statesman editorial meeting which decided not to run with the article.

Update: The report is now available and various corners of the media have picked up on it. It highlights five main concerns with the government's mass surveillance "solution" to child safety:

1. The government's strategy will divert resources and attention away from
frontline services;

2. The government hopes that sharing information from health,
education, social care and youth justice systems will enable it to
predict which children will become criminals. But predictions can
be highly fallible, and labelling children can stigmatise them.
Children 'fingered' by the computer as 'bad' may find that their
teachers have lower expectations, while the police may be more
likely to treat them as suspects rather than witnesses;

3. Moving responsibility from teachers, doctors and social workers to
a central system will also erode parental responsibility. Parents
and children's views will be more easily sidelined. The policy
involves micromanaged targets for every child, with responsibility
for achieving them placed on children's services, rather than
parents -- even down to meeting 'performance indicators' about the
amount of fruit and vegetables eaten and participation in
voluntary work;

4. Children will be bullied into providing intrusive data on
themselves, their parents and friends without proper safeguards,
and into giving their 'consent' to widespread data sharing without
involvement of their parents, in contravention of the law;

5. Families' privacy and autonomy will be corroded as the government
puts them under surveillance. The new policy will treat all
parents as if they cannot be trusted to bring up their children
and to ask for help if and when needed.

A Department for Education and Skills (DfES) spokesman is quoted by the BBC as saying: "We have some serious reservations about this report's objectivity and evidence base" which is actually quite funny when you look at the extensive list of government documents, listed in the footnotes, which the authors base their analysis and conclusions on. The DfES is trying to spin it by saying the report was done for the Information Commissioner but does not represent his views yet he has repeatedly made many of the same points when talking publicly about the government strategy in this area. No doubt he is coming under pressure in private to sideline the report but that just wouldn't wash, even in the highly unlikely event that the Information Commissioner was influenced by such pressure. The report is a thoroughly comprehensive, impeccable study by some of the most knowledgable people in the field. The government would do well to reign in its usual reflex response to constructive feedback and take note of the findings. Sadly I fear there will be pigs flying over Whitehall under their own volition before we see such positive engagement from the current incumbents.

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