Here’s how they got you on the database without you even knowing


Open Secrets – Part III of a Scottish Review investigation

Kenneth Roy

The great illusion about Scotland’s citizens’ database – it would not be surprising if many people reading this week’s pieces share it – is that it is about anybody but us. It is about deterring terrorists, catching criminals, keeping an eye on young offenders potential or actual, and helping the extremely vulnerable. The ‘anybody but us’ theory sits nicely with that other mantra of the database society, ‘If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’. New Labour’s assault on civil liberties, eagerly supported by the mainstream press, thrived on such self-deluded populism. The ID card scheme has gone. The database behind it continues to grow.
     The Scottish government is keen to foster the great illusion. Indeed it goes very much further. The Scottish government claims that the ultimate purpose of gathering and sharing information about the intimate details of people’s lives – especially young people – is ‘economic recovery’. There is an official document, produced in Edinburgh, which makes this explicit assertion, arguing that the database state will reduce crime and eventually produce a more economically productive society. Is this now the role of social workers – to produce economically productive citizens? Perhaps they too have been labouring under an illusion – that it was their job to give young people a better life. But let that pass.
     In practice, the bizarre logic of economic recovery quickly falls apart. In the most notorious case of child abuse in the UK for many years, it was found that one of the causes of Baby P’s death was the obligation placed on staff to underake extensive information-gathering as a pre-requisite of purposeful intervention. By the time all the information had been gathered, the child was dead. Yet it is extensive information-gathering that lies at the heart of current Scottish policy and is being zealously pursued by the e-Care Programme Board, which consists almost solely of civil servants and includes not a single elected representative.

Most of us acquire our own profile without even knowing. Most of us are unwitting agents of a colossal exercise in social engineering.

     Meanwhile, the great illusion does not bear serious examination. It is not a case of anybody but us. We’re all in it together – the guilty, the innocent and the not-provens – as the mass profiling of the Scottish population proceeds apace. Most of us acquire our own profile without even knowing. Most of us are unwitting agents of a colossal exercise in social engineering.
     Here is an example.
     If you are an ‘older’ person and have one of those nice passes entitling you to free bus travel in Scotland, the chances are that you crossed a box giving your local authority permission to share your personal details. Perhaps you did not give the matter very much thought. You would not necessarily have known that the act of putting a cross on an innocent-looking form would qualify you for automatic entry on the citizens’ database.
     I have the form in front of me. It is true that there is an alternative box – the one you cross if you are refusing permission to have your details shared – but, such are the persuasive arguments in favour of consent, only fully paid-up subversives would contemplate being awkward about it.
     Here is the sweetener that few will be able to resist: ‘If you give your local authority your permission to use your personal details we will not ask you to fill out a form again to get additional applications on the card if you are entitled to receive those services’. The seductive case for reducing bureaucracy is developed at some length and examples are given of the extra entitlements – including membership of the council’s libraries and leisure clubs. In effect, consent is presented as the only reasonable option.
     The consequences of putting your cross in the correct box are also explained, but not at the same length. ‘…the council wishes to share your personal details with departments and agencies of the council, other Scottish councils, and the Scottish Executive. The purpose of sharing this information is to ensure that your personal details are correct, wherever these bodies hold them’.

This is how we sleep-walk into a surveillance society – by complacency and default. Isn’t it time we woke up?

     Now that you have consented, you pass ‘Go’ into the state’s database (if you are not already there), where other information about you can start being ‘aggregated’ and shared. If, for example, you have recently met a health or social worker and you have been asked in a supportive manner whether you live alone and you have replied ‘Yes’, then that fact will be added to your profile, and so the information-gathering will continue from one episode in your life to the next.
     If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear…but perhaps, even in this innocent scenario, there is something to hide and something to fear. Would you really want the fact that you live alone, and make frequent journeys away from home by bus, to fall into the wrong hands? You must trust that the advice of data protection officers to public officials handling your file is no longer being ‘ignored’, as it was being ignored when the citizens’ database was set up; and you must trust that the database is more secure than, say, the American defence department’s. That is a lot of trust to place in any government.
     Is such trust merited? It would be comforting to give a confident affirming answer. As it is, the form itself – that thing you signed for your entitlement card – is of dubious legality. Your insurance company will give you a couple of pages of information about how it will use and store the information you supply. This is known as a PIN – a Privacy Impact Notice. But the relatively high standards of your insurance company seem not to apply to public bodies, whose attitude to Privacy Impact Notices is casual to the point of cavalier. In the case of that apparently innocuous form for your bus pass, it is not there.
     This is how we sleep-walk into a surveillance society – by complacency and default. Isn’t it time we woke up?

[click here] for Part I of Open Secrets

[click here] for Part II of Open Secrets

The fourth and final part of the series will be published in Tuesday’s edition. If you would like to contribute your own thoughts and experiences, confidentially or otherwise, please contact

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.