The Database State

Nasia Hadjigeorgiou (The UCL Student Human Rights Programme):

The database state, which has been described as the new threat to our liberty, is anything but new; the plans for its creation have been around (at least on a European level) for about a decade. Unlike the usual governmental projects however, involving a lot of talk and no action, this has been exactly the opposite: so much action, yet almost no debate on its merits. The fact that this threat has only been recognised so recently, makes it even more necessary to act urgently and do something about it.

The notion of the database state was first used in this sense in 2004 when the government announced its plans for a single database which would contain all the necessary information to deliver the best services to its citizens based on each individual’s ‘behavioural needs’. How these needs will be identified by the government is the root of all problems.

Where is the danger one might ask – we give personal information to private organisations such as banks or large companies all the time. However, this ‘Tesco Club Card’ argument is persuasive only as long as there are other places from which we can buy our groceries and as long as we have a choice on whether to exchange some of our private information for a few more bonus Clubcard points. Here, none of the two factors is present: unlike Tesco, our government enjoys a monopoly in providing the services in question and despite calling the programme a ‘voluntary’ one, it doesn’t work with incentives but with threats. Even the security from terrorism argument remains unpersuasive since the UK was one of the stronger supporters of the system when it was suggested on a European level as early as 1991.

Apart from the fact that providing our personal information to the government to own and use as it thinks fits is wrong in principle, it also faces a number of practical problems. As Sam Talbot Rice, Director of Research, Centre for Policy Studies pointed out, we are investing an approximate £30 billion (and we all know how inaccurate such estimations tend to be) to create a ‘honey pot’ for possible hackers; and the trophy will be our personal information. And we are not talking about only about our name and address here: the database will include information on one’s religion, fingerprints, DNA, medical records (there goes the whole doctor-patient privilege), nicknames and the list goes on and on and on – 53 pieces of information.

As it was pointed out during the discussion however, it is not what we give the government that matters, but what it has the possibility to find out on its own and match with what it already knows – merely consider that a large part of the banking industry is now state owned. The whole point of a central database is that it makes cross referencing of all the information and people we know easier. This is taken to a whole different Big Brother level if we take into account the fact that the ID is intended to be a swipe card, almost like a personal GPS device tracking down its user’s every movement (going to the doctor, travelling on the motorway etc.) and storing it in a huge database.

The process has already began; people have already been warned that if they don’t start ‘volunteering’ to give up their private information (and I am using the expression ‘give up’ quite literally since the information will from now on belong to the government), they will start losing their jobs and passports. One should remember that digital information is not so easy to destroy; it is not like we will burn our paper ID and the nightmare will be over. It is for this reason that Christina Zaba said that this is everyone’s personal problem and expressly supported civil disobedience as the only efficient alternative we have left.

If the database scenario doesn’t sound that horrifying yet, one does not need to have a wild imagination to come up with a future straight out of a science fiction movie. Under the current law, people will be issued national ID numbers from the time they leave their mother’s womb. Combine that with the fact that London has the greatest number of CCTV cameras per person than any other city in the world and with the possibility of tracking down your every move through cameras at every traffic light. The government is about to duplicate your self into an electronic one. And if all this is too crazy and totalitarian to imagine, turn your minds just 5 years ago: did you ever think that you would be reading this article today?

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