"Electronic life records" must support not attack human rights
FOR IMMEDIATE USE: 30 October 2003
FIPR has called on the government to ensure that a new electronic database of life events — births, marriages, deaths etc. — supports rather than reduces privacy and liberty.
In a response to the Office of National Statistics' consultation on their plans for such a database, FIPR said that:
This proposal amounts to establishing the foundations for a compulsory dossier on every citizen. Once begun, it would develop its own momentum as agencies discovered new advantages. Fraud and crime prevention could be argued to justify the inclusion of information relating to social security benefits, tax, passports, drivers' licences, criminal records and much else. Public health considerations might be argued to justify extension of the snapshot of information about the cause of death to an accumulation of information about health events during life. The protection of children might be argued to justify linkage with information accumulated by social services departments. The needs of the war on terrorism seem capable of being used to justify almost anything.
The proposed database is already intended to store information that goes beyond its stated purpose. 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.
Simpler measures could be cheaper, less invasive and more effective. For example, a basic registry of deaths would allow the Passport Agency to check applications for fraud.
Paper records provide historical evidence that is hard to retrospectively alter. Any computer database proposed to replace these records must be very carefully designed to ensure that it prevents information being altered after the fact.
Nicholas Bohm, author of the response, commented: "The government must avoid the risks of turning the register of births into a set of comprehensive dossiers on every citizen." He added: "We should not be moving towards a system where our very identity is dependent on registration by the Government in a central database."
The FIPR response can be read at:
Contact for enquiries:
General Counsel, FIPR
Tel: 01279 871272
Mobile 07715 419728
Notes for editors
- The Foundation for Information Policy Research (http://www.fipr.org) is an independent body that studies the interaction between information technology and society. Its goal is to identify technical developments with significant social impact, commission and undertaken research into public policy alternatives, and promote public understanding and dialogue between technologists and policy-makers in the UK and Europe.
- Details of the government's consultation on "Modernising Civil Registration" are at: http://www.statistics.gov.uk/registration/whitepaper/default.asp