Opinion: Why I fear joined-up government

Would you trust Whitehall with your data?

Would you trust Whitehall with your data?

As government once again considers building a 'super database' linking all our personal details, Simon Moores explains why, though he doesn't oppose the idea in theory, he's uneasy about it in practice.

Back in the good old days before every bus, train and lamppost carried a CCTV camera and Ripa (Regulation and Investigatory Power Act) was a twinkle in Home Secretary, Jack Straw's eye, silicon.com asked me to comment on another crazy-sounding scheme - connecting all of government's citizen information into a single giant database.

In the video roundtable discussion, I described the giant database idea as 'The Beria Principle' after the Russian NKVD security head, Lavrentiy Beria, the executor of Joseph Stalin's Great Purge of the 1930s.

Around the same time, in the coffee lounge of the Institute of Directors, my friend J quipped: "You don't have to worry about government until it's joined-up." J was what the BBC calls a 'spook' and had an office overlooking the Prime Minister's garden.

Now while we have an Office of Constitutional Affairs, we don't yet have a Combined State Political Directorate. That's where I fear the idea for a huge Whitehall 'super-database' of people's personal details might best sit, regardless of the noises surrounding its true objective of improving public services.

At the forthcoming e-Crime Congress in March, this is a subject which will be examined by Cambridge University professor Ross Anderson and information commissioner Richard Thomas, who has already warned the UK may be "sleepwalking into a surveillance society".

Why do I object to the idea of joined-up government in the battle to improve public-sector efficiency and fight fraud? In principle I don't but in practice I'm naturally uneasy when it comes to public-sector guardianship of personal data - whether this involves national insurance (NI) or NHS information, or simply the list of people who want to receive a text warning from MI5 in the event of a security alert.

The simple fact of the matter is that the government leaks like a sieve. We know from scandalous story after story that personal information isn't secure and that criminals know that working for government departments such as the immigration service or even the Home Office can give them access to information or materials that can produce anything from passports to NI numbers.

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After all, it's been suggested that as many as 30 per cent of the NI numbers in circulation are bogus, costing the Treasury billions in fraud each year.

So why not have a single database that provides for a cross-checking of information, an idea that re-emerged in the government's policy review on public services headed by Work and Pensions Secretary John Hutton?

I have several objections. Firstly, we don't have enough floor space in our prisons to deal with the number of fraudsters, thieves and illegal immigrants that such a database might reveal.

Secondly, mirroring the privacy concerns that have marred the progress of the National Program for IT in the NHS, there's little trust in government to properly protect the full details of your life from 'interested parties'. These could be the security services, the Inland Revenue, your local council, Tesco, the Russian mafia or even the Combined State Political Directorate of tomorrow, given the rapid and alarming manner in which our unwritten constitution has changed over the last decade.

While being joined-up may offer a real advantage to government departments, the privacy risks to the rest of us are even greater.

Until the public sector can demonstrate a better track record of success with personal data than it has in the past, I'll support my spooky friend in believing that some things are best left alone if we are not to plunge headlong into Big Brother's vision of a future I want no part in.