Tuesday 20 February 2007

Taking a liberty

Marvellous things, databases. They must be, given the apparently limitless amounts of money that the Government is prepared to chuck at them.

There’s the £20 billion NHS system, for a start. (Just think how many “unaffordable” drugs and rationed operations that could pay for, at a time when cash-strapped NHS Trusts are removing light bulbs to cut costs.) This is the database to which they plan to upload your medical records so that they can be accessed by every health worker in the EU. Plus, I suspect, any hacker who fancies a laugh.

Then there’s the national DNA database, already the largest in the world and expected to include the profiles of over four million people by next year. Again, about to be freely accessible by the police forces of all 27 EU countries.

A comprehensive children’s database is being created in the name of child protection, excluding – with truly astonishing hypocrisy – the offspring of politicians and other “celebrities”.

Yet another handy database has been unwittingly created by the 1.5 million people who rashly signed the current e-petition against road pricing, allowing a Government spokesman to promise to get in touch with them all to explain the error of their ways. Or, as bullies, usually like to put it, “we know where you live”.

Though this is nothing to the database that will be created if the road pricing scheme comes to fruition, using satellite tracking to record every vehicle movement in the country.

There’s the housing valuation database being prepared to facilitate the forthcoming hike in council tax, backed by unprecedented powers for Government inspectors to enter and photograph your home. There will soon even be a database of your weekly refuse output, measured by a microchip in your wheelie bin.

But all these pale into insignificance compared with the great National Identity Register. The requirement for new passport applicants to attend an interview is but the first turn of a ratchet which will soon require all of us to travel to a regional interrogation centre to be cross-questioned, finger-printed and iris-scanned for entry onto the database and to pay for the associated ID card. Without this, it will be impossible to work, bank, drive or access healthcare, pensions and benefits. In short, to exist in any normal sense.

There are two obvious potential lifelines in this fast-developing nightmare of cradle to grave surveillance. First, the whole history of Government IT projects suggests that their plans will end in a series of humiliating fiascos. One of the consultants charged with delivering the NHS system has already pronounced that it “isn’t working and isn’t going to work”. So nothing to worry about, then, apart from the billions of pounds of our hard-earned cash that will have been tipped pointlessly down the drain.

Secondly, the British people have traditionally been prepared to take a stand for their liberty. Are we really going to accept this multi-pronged and multi-layered intrusion into our lives, in the belief that Big Brother knows best? I am reluctant to believe it. If these schemes do progress, I trust that we will all pull together in a spirit of non-co-operation that will render them ineffective, whether by forbidding our GPs to add our medical records to the central database, or failing to turn up for our ID card interrogations.

True, you can be fined up to £2,500 for failing to attend your “interview”, and so far as I can see they can go on issuing appointments and fines ad infinitum. The Government has cunningly made this a civil rather than a criminal offence (so no hope of Legal Aid to defend yourself), but presumably if one can’t or won’t pay then prison ultimately beckons. I’m working on the theory that they can’t lock us all up. Though if all the current plans come to fruition, would we really notice that much difference in the quality of our lives if they did?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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