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

Fri, Mar 27, 2009 - Page 9

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.

Schools in England in both the state and independent sectors will have a duty to supply the information. The Independent Schools’ Council, which represents private schools in the UK, has campaigned against the database and has sent out letters to headteachers advising them to draw the shielding provisions to the attention of parents. It also suggests schools refuse to fill in the section on additional school-based services accessed by children, substituting for every pupil the words: “For information about additional school-based services, if any, please contact [x].”

Council chief executive David Lyscom calls ContactPoint “a global solution to what is essentially a problem of looking after the children most at risk.”

“If you want to find a needle in a haystack, then don’t make the haystack so big that no one can find anything,” he said. “We are against it, but we recognize it is being implemented and we are giving guidance to schools because there is a general lack of trust in the system.”

The UK Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) defends ContactPoint as a fast and efficient way of ensuring no child slips through the net.

“It will save time, not cost time, and it will have sophisticated security systems in place,” a spokesman said. “It will not include huge amounts of personal data, but it will simply flag concerns and ensure one professional can see when other professionals have been working with a child. In fact, it won’t contain any more personal data than is already held on most children anyway.”

ContactPoint is also supported by two of the biggest children’s charities. Chris Hanvey, deputy chief executive of Barnardo’s, says the database will not eradicate non-accidental child deaths, but it will help protect children by enabling practitioners to coordinate their approaches more quickly.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) agrees that the current generation of children cannot be protected by returning to the days of paper records. Wes Cuell, its director of services for children and young people, says enormous effort has been put into making ContactPoint as safe and secure as possible.

“No recording system can ever be completely failsafe, but the NSPCC believes the benefits of ContactPoint for children facing abuse are overwhelming,” he said. ““It will help ensure that any concerns about children picked up by one agency do not fall under the radar of the different professionals working with those children.”

Headteachers have already raised concerns about the new Common Assessment Framework, under which people working with children must fill in an eight-page form to access additional support for lower-level problems that are not putting the child at immediate risk. The system is about to be computerized and become known as eCAF. Teachers will no longer be able to leave gaps but will have to complete every field, says Terri Dowty, the director of Arch, a charity for children’s rights and a coauthor of the database report.

“A childminder contacted us to say she had been on an afternoon’s training course and was told she had to fill in CAF forms,” Dowty said. “She said she was paid to look after someone’s children, she was not there to sit in judgment on their parents and didn’t feel she had the expertise to comment on their family situations and relationship with the child.”

Those filling in the CAF forms are told to consider such things as the nature and quality of early attachments, stable and affectionate relationships with parents, whether children have clean and appropriate clothing, appropriate physical contact such as comfort and cuddling, praise and encouragement, effective discipline and whether they are overprotected. The form also seeks detailed information about the family, such as routines, any serious difficulties in the parents’ relationship and ways in which the family income is used.

“It worries me because it implies there is a right way to bring up children, when the most we can say from the evidence is that there are one or two bad ways of doing it,” Dowty said. “It’s like laying down a national person specification.”

The plan is to archive material on ContactPoint when children turn 18, but some people’s records will stay until they are 25, says the DCSF, which adds that records will be held in the secure archive for six years and then destroyed.

The report’s authors, however, fear that once the data is in place, the government will not want to delete it.

“Children have the right to reinvent themselves when they grow up,” Dowty said. “They can go through difficult times, sometimes in their teens, and they need to be able to shed that background and get on with their lives.”

Security is another concern. Arch’s research into local authority data protection policies has uncovered what Dowty describes as “a cavalier attitude” to the protection of confidential information. Its survey of 94 local authorities found only eight of their security policies mentioned encrypting sensitive data before transmission. Two of them instructed staff to lock confidential client files in the boot of their cars if leaving them unattended, and another said it was safe to e-mail sensitive data in a Microsoft Word document, as long as it was password protected.

It is important that the need to protect vulnerable children is balanced against the wider problem of data protection and personal freedom, says John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

“The problem schools have had in the past has been the unwillingness of social services to share data with them. The situation should be better now, and I hope it is. But the laudable wish to make information available to everyone working with a child who has a problem may have unintended consequences for the child later on in life that we don’t yet know about,” he said.

“The other issue is the lack of confidence in the security of information. The bigger the database, it seems the greater the chance it will turn up on a train seat somewhere,” he said.