You do have something to fear

Two items in the news today have got me back up on my civil liberties soap box; one from the Today programme and one picked up from my reading of someone else’s discarded Metro on the Victoria Line but both about Government databases.

At 6.30am this morning there was concern around the fact that everybody’s medical records were going to be put on the national NHS Patients Records database for all health professionals to see and the only way you could have your personal information excluded from this process was to plead that you would suffer considerable ‘emotional distress’ – although whether that is more or less than the amount of emotional distress required to explain why you would have emotional distress, I don’t know. All getting a bit ‘yes, minister’ around here….

Or at least, if it was the slightest bit funny, it would.

The second is about the DNA database and the numbers of ‘innocent’ people on it. Having googled the whole subject, I have discovered (from Lynne Featherstone’s website) that not only are 25% of the people on the database innocent but that in London, 57% of the innocent people on the database are in fact non-white. A third of all the black population in England & Wales is already on the database.

These databases, at first thought, which might be the only one that most of us give them, might seem to be attempting a general good. After all a database is only recording fact, isn’t it? And after all, in both cases the innocent have nothing to fear do they?

But it’s not that simple – already we can see that the DNA database is becoming racially skewed, to mirror a racial skew in the police’s stop and search and questioning policy. It is also at risk of being used for research purposes to racially profile suspects DNA. If the DNA were being collected in a random fashion it would not be as potentially socially explosive.

Ok, as one contributor to the BBC message board put it today, so what if someone over the other side of the country can see I’ve got a problem with my leg or my kidneys? But what happens when a record gives an indication of a more socially loaded condition, such as alcoholism, what then? What if the concerns around security do come true, what then?

If information is power then we are giving more and more power to government employees and governments and fundamentally changing the relationship between the state and the citizen.

Yet, as Shami Chakrabarti points out time and again, this is something we are sleep walking into. Why do so many of my non political friends not care, or feel slightly uncomfortable about it but shrug and accept it? I think, mainly, because they don’t think it will ever happen to them. And just like they can’t imagine ever needing to flee their country and claim asylum or not being able to get a visa for anywhere in the world they may choose to visit; they can’t imagine getting on the wrong side of a database.

“First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me”

Martin Niemöller

I’ve probably rambled a bit and tried to get too many ideas into this blog and perhaps when I’ve been going for years I might be able to control my desire to get everything out at once. It is something gets me really exercised, as you can probably tell.


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