Fri, Mar 27, 2009 - Page 9 News List

The hidden risks of databases on children

Among a proliferation of government databases in the UK, the three causing greatest concern over legality, privacy and consent were set up to protect children

By Liz Lightfoot  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Jack is a nine-year-old British schoolboy and has been learning about the dangers of alcohol abuse in his personal, social and health education lessons. The subject has been playing on his mind, and while he is being assessed by a teacher so that he can receive extra support to tackle his disruptive behavior, he says that he thinks his mother is an alcoholic.

His mother is later able to rebut the innocent comment, but it stays on his records, as does the fact that the father he has not seen for years recently spent a spell in jail for fraud. Years afterwards, when Jack is 14, and with some youths who get into a fight, the police treat him as a suspect rather than a witness and he ends up with a caution for affray. Ten years later, he is turned down for a job with the UK’s Department of Transport because the new, extended background-screening program picks up the caution and the suggestion of alcohol abuse and criminal activity in his family background.

It’s a fictional construct but, according to the authors of a report on the growth of national databases in the UK, it is just the sort of thing that could happen to children when they reach adulthood, once the state has a detailed an all-embracing record of their young lives.

Children are among those most at risk from Britain’s database state, warns the report, published on Monday by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, a charity involved in promoting political reform, constitutional change and social justice in the UK. Its report looks in detail at 46 public sector databases being set up across government departments in the country. Three of the systems with the most critical problems concerning issues of legality, privacy and consent are those set up to support and protect children, it says.

“The problem with many systems built for welfare purposes is that they end up harming the very people they were supposed to help,” says Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at Cambridge University, who coauthored the report, Database State.

Child protection is being expanded by the government to take in child welfare — those who suffer from disadvantages such as poverty, ill-health or poor school performance — at a time when social services do not have the resources to tackle the problem, he says.

It is not just factual information that is being logged. People who work with children are being compelled to make judgments about them and their families that they are not qualified to make, he said.

“Tittle-tattle will be entered on the system and treated as gospel,” he said.

The three systems the report identifies as the most dangerous are ContactPoint, a national index of all children in England, which is being piloted in the northwest and is due to be rolled out to the rest of the country later this year; eCAF, the electronic record of children who are screened under the Common Assessment Framework (CAF) because they need extra support; and Onset, the controversial profiling system that looks at children’s backgrounds and decides whether they are potential criminals.

The report uses a traffic-light system to denote the risk to human rights or data protection law, and describes all three systems as “red” — that is, “they are almost certainly illegal and should be scrapped or substantially redesigned.”

Doctors, social workers and the police will be able look up details on every child in England on the ContactPoint directory. It will hold the name, address, date of birth, medical and school details of all under-18s, plus the services working with them, in order to prevent children from falling through the gaps. Contact with “sensitive” services such as sexual health clinics and drug abuse programs will also be included. Parents can request to have material such as addresses “shielded” if they can provide a good reason, such as risk to the child from an abusive relative, but it will be up to individual local authorities to decide.

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