A data protection officer I know has been having a bit of a hard time lately from his managers for questioning their relentless push to encourage greater sharing of information between their public sector organisation and other public sector bodies. My friend has been accused of not being a “can-do” person. In defence of his managers, they are being pushed themselves: despite the Conservative party’s pre-election pledge to “scale back the database state” and the Lib Dems’ commitments not to harvest unneccesary information about people’s private lives, data-sharing is being vigorously promoted.
Sometimes it’s important to share data. I blogged only yesterday about a situation where (if it’s true) a failure to share data possibly had tragic consequences. Similarly I remember once, when I worked in a mental health clinic, how two police officers came in and asked if we knew the whereabouts of one of our regular patients: I had been warned that some police officers would try to trick us into revealing information about our patients, but I knew that this patient was highly vulnerable and unstable and the officers apparently had good reason to know the information. I exercised a discretion that I still wonder about today to disclose that personal data. It was a judgement call, and sometimes you get them wrong – I hope I didn’t then.
However, it is surely not uncontroversial to say that there are risks in excessive data-sharing. Paul Bernal has blogged today, prompted by the worrying success of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn movement in last week’s Greek elections, about the importance of recognising what are the current, and historical, implications of surveillance of citizens by the state. “Surveillance” can take many forms – sometimes it’s video recording of people, or retention of their DNA. Sometimes it’s not even the state doing it, but citizens themselves: I recently wrote a rather crude post (which I need to re-visit) questioning whether it was a good idea to have hyper-local media collating and publishing information about people appearing in magistrates’ courts.
Sometimes, as well, it can take the form of creeping databases. Thus, hypothetically, the state is able to collate the following: person W, who is Jewish, knows person X, who is a trade unionist, who has been known to associate with person Y, who is disabled and has twice been accused of crime Z. The state thinks this is useful data. It might be, but equally it might be excessive, or unnecessarily gathered, or retained too long.
In a modern, liberal, state, none of the identifiying features in my hypothetical example should really raise an eyebrow. In a non-liberal state, however, similar information that has possibly been innocently, or naively, collated, can be misused in horrendous ways: so, in 1940s Holland, municipal registers were used by the Nazis to identify and persecute Jews, trade union membership lists used to persecute organised labour and public health and crime records used to persecute the disabled and criminals.
Maybe I’ve godwinned myself and my own blog, but one cannot avoid the fact that modern digital communication and storage are tremendously powerful – unimaginably so compared to even ten years ago, let alone 70 years. Data-sharing can have enormous and beneficial implications, but we need to exercise caution. We mustn’t amass personal data just because we can. We mustn’t use that data for purposes which were not envisaged when we gathered it. And we mustn’t retain that data just because we can’t be bothered to think what to do with it after its usefulness has passed.
As it happens, all the foregoing principles are actually enshrined in the statutory Principles in the Data Protection Act 1998. That Act gave domestic effect to an EC Directive, which in part had its genesis in the European Convention on Human Rights. That Convention – in turn – had its genesis in the lessons learned after a fascist party gained support in Europe, and then ultimately took power in a fractured and devastated country.