Big Brother needs sibling rivalry

Bureaucrats want to share what they think they know about you with each other. That should be our job
Written by Leader , Contributor

When the current government first came to power, it professed a policy of joined-up government. The years have not been kind to this notion — some dots are harder to join than others.

For example, there's no very straight line between the proposal for a massive database on all citizens, and the news that the Home Office has consistently failed to collect and maintain the most basic information on its criminals — such as, what crimes they commit and whether they have escaped from prison. It is touching that the government has such great and continued faith in IT, despite mounting evidence that digital watches are beyond them, but enough's enough. Delivering each citizen's entire identity into the hands of powerful people who would be hard pressed to file Afghanistan before Zanzibar in a stamp album is not the brightest of ideas.

We have a better one. It's not original — companies such as PAOGA and phenomena like Wikipedia are showing the way — but it's still quite radical. The idea is that individual identity information belongs to individuals, and that given the tools and motivation individuals are more than capable of using and protecting that information wisely. A national database of personal information maintained by the people ourselves would move the responsibilities and benefits of the idea into the hands of those best equipped and motivated to make it work.

There would be, of course, no guarantee that information maintained by its owner is accurate — except that those who use the information and found it good could note the fact. Chains of trust, such as exist in any community, are powerful ways to bind in the truth. And security would depend on what each individual wanted to make available, to whom and for how long. Public domain information could be as little as a name and an email address, if that; even if one chose to expose more, it would be regularising what's happening anyway. So much of our lives online is visible to Google that opting out altogether is only an option for those who abstain from the Net.

Such a database would solve the problems that prompted the original idea — such as the huge number of officials that need to be informed on bereavement. Rather than departments trying to share their own data on this, it makes far more sense to have a common point of contact where individuals can provide just the right information from the national database with well-defined limits for retention and use.

It would not be a simple project. But with sensible design, safeguards and legal backing, it would demystify and protect personal data in a cost-effective way while minimising the dangers from corruption and incompetence. Our data belongs to us — a joined-up piece of thinking that should be clear to all.

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