Can’t you just be modern?

David Walker in today’s Guardian says that we should ‘delete this dread of data sharing’:

The optimists – and they are not all Microsoft or Oracle executives with a product to sell – want interactions between people and their government to be as slick and trouble-free as they can be.

I’m willing to bet that pessimists and realists want exactly the same but, that aside, before citing Microsoft, Walker would have been wise to check out the views of Jerry Fishenden or Kim Cameron.

Fishenden, for example, describes:

“…the specific problems associated with the type of large scale databases that seem to be – puzzlingly – back in vogue, despite their known security shortcomings”

While the first of Cameron’s ‘Seven Laws of Identity’ puts consent at the heart of data-sharing.

And that’s the problem: it’s one thing to decide that you will give government departments permission to share your data in order to avoid having to “…tell the council, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and the Department for Work and Pensions separately of a death”. It’s quite another to have a government take decisions about your private life out of your hands.

Puzzlingly, Walker asks: “is this reluctance to embrace the opportunities a result of the mistrust fired on all matters of data and IT?”

What? Is it really likely that IT security experts of the stature of Bruce Schneier and Ross Anderson (not to mention the two already cited above) are technophobic Luddites? A glance at their pedigrees ought to be sufficient to give even the most idealistic Big Database evangelist pause for thought. As for objections to sharing children’s data: when eminent child protection specialists and social workers shout “Danger!” it’s a damn good idea to listen.

Walker continues:

“Why the assumption that the state is malign? …There is a lump of opinion formers and lobbyists whose distrust of government and indifference to the benefits of information flow remains a powerful block – and a perverse justification for the many public managers dragging their feet on the information highway.”

We make no assumption that the state is malign at the moment, but the best way to ensure that it never becomes so is to prevent it from gaining the power in the first place – a key reason for having human rights instruments that enshrine such principles as privacy. Meanwhile, there is compelling evidence that we should certainly be concerned about the security of our personal data on the grounds of competence alone. The potential to do harm, even when meaning well, is enormous. Ultimately, if someone runs you over with a JCB, it doesn’t matter whether they are malicious, poorly-qualified or merely careless: the effect is the same.

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