Children's database could damage children, warns FIPR

The Government's plans for children's databases will damage the welfare of some at-risk children for the sake of a doomed e-Government agenda, the author of a report for the Information Commissioner has warned.

The report's author also said that data protection rules were already being broken in the Government's gathering of information about children.

Ross Anderson is the chairman of the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR), which carried out a safety and privacy analysis of the Government's proposals for more databases of information about children. He said that the proposals will be costly, will be damaging and will eventually fail.

"By asking social workers to look into the affairs of almost 100 times as many children, most of whom don't require any particular special support at all, you are going to take attention away from the child protection cases with the result that some children will come to harm," said Anderson.

Anderson said that it is appropriate for privacy rules to be broken in serious cases where children are at risk, but said that the Government's building of a database for all children risked breaking data protection rules without good reason.

"The approaches that are justified in child protection simply aren't justified in legal terms – human rights law, privacy law, data protection law, in dealing with [much less serious] child welfare cases," he said. "In a child protection case it's perfectly OK to override privacy and override parents, because the parents are suspected of being serious criminals, but that's not the case in child welfare."

"For things like the [education services card] Connections card, the Government is not obeying the law of the land when it comes to getting consent for data sharing from children and their families," said Anderson. "In these circumstances saying that it's OK to just ask the kids is wrong in law and we believe that it's oppressive and unjust."

The Department for Education and Skills spokeswoman said that it did not disregard the privacy of children. “We have some serious reservations about this report’s objectivity and evidence base," she said. "The databases discussed within the report are intended to support those who work with children to do their jobs better."

"In April this year we published cross-government about information sharing for those working with children and young people. This guidance was subject to significant public consultation and was endorsed by the Information Commissioner," she said.

Though he believes that the security of the databases, which could include information such as children's medical and education records, would inevitably be compromised because so many civil servants would have access to it, he said that he does not believe that the government has an ulterior motive in building them.

"I think they've just blundered into it because of the e-Government agenda, because of Tony Blair's statement that all Government services should be delivered electronically by 2008," he said.

Anderson believes that Government policies are seriously diverging with those in Europe on data protection. "Sooner or later there will be a British prime minister who has to make a decision between remaining in Europe or abandoning some central administrative systems on which a lot of money has been spent, and the systems that have to be abandoned may include the children's system."

“The support, protection and safeguarding of children is our top priority but in fulfilling it we are conscious of the need to respect personal privacy," said the DfES. "We have consulted the Information Commissioner throughout the development of our policies and specific databases and we continue to value this important relationship.”