Safeguards urged for 'life events database'

A government plan to create an electronic database on every citizen must be prevented from running amok, say civil liberties groups

Privacy advocates have warned that government plans for an electronic database of births, deaths and marriages could form the basis for a comprehensive dossier on all UK citizens and lead to further erosion of privacy.

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) is currently carrying out a consultation on a plan to modernise civil registration, which includes creating a database containing registry information, such as births, deaths and marriages. However, the database could easily grow to include far more information than necessary for its stated purpose, and in fact has already done so, warns IT policy think tank the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR).

"It is difficult to see the justification for including occupations, ranks and professions of brides, grooms and their parents, or causes of death, within the registration system," the group said on Thursday in its response to the ONS consultation document.

Once an electronic registration database was created, it would be likely to develop its own momentum, as different government agencies would find it an efficient place to store information on social security benefits, tax, passports, drivers' licences, criminal records, health events and other data, FIPR said.

"The government must avoid the risks of turning the register of births into a set of comprehensive dossiers on every citizen," said FIPR general counsel Nicholas Bohm, who authored the response, in a statement. "We should not be moving towards a system where our very identity is dependent on registration by the government in a central database."

The database would also need to be designed in such a way that information cannot be altered after the fact, as it would replace the historical evidence currently provided by paper documents.

Civil rights group Liberty said that such databases will inevitably cause privacy concerns, and create the risk of mistakes being made in handling citizens' private information, but argued it is futile to stop the government from creating them.

"What is necessary is new legislation which brings privacy regulations into line with 21st-century technology," said Liberty spokesman Barry Hughill. "We have to be clear about what the safeguards are, what the protections are. There has to be some form of control over how these databases are used."

The ONS' modernisation white paper and consultation document can be found on the body's Web site.

The UK was recently embroiled in a debate around a government plan to introduce identification cards, which was criticised as intrusive and a waste of public funds. In the US, a controversial antiterrorism scheme originally known as Total Information Awareness would have created computerised dossiers on all Americans, but was dumped last month following aggressive lobbying by civil rights groups.