In the nightmarish world of mass snooping on children, Scotland leads the way


Part II of an SR investigation by Kenneth Roy

Unknown to most parents, the state is creating an electronic file on every child in Scotland. The information it contains extends far beyond a simple, old-fashioned health record. It covers every aspect of a child’s life – even down to the names of the family pets. Each of these files, and the wealth of personal information within, is able to be ‘shared’ by the many agencies with whom the child comes into contact. We reported yesterday that this mass database is being piloted by five local authorities before being introduced in Scotland as a whole. We pointed out its potential for mass surveillance, the obfuscation of the official language used to describe it, and the disingenuous claims made for it, including the extraordinary assertion of a director of social work that it is ‘reducing bureaucracy’. Today, we look at GIRFEC (‘Getting It Right For Every Child’) in more detail.

It has a name and an acronym, this file on every child in Scotland. It is called a CVSR: Child’s Virtual Shared Record. According to an obscure Scottish government report we have managed to access – the ‘Sharing Model and Process’ published in 2008 by the ‘Transformational Technologies Division of the Standards Branch’ – the purpose of the scheme is ‘to ensure that information about children is recorded in a consistent way, increasing interoperability between systems and leading to a shared understanding of a child’s needs’.
     What is the core of the plan behind this jargon?
     A CVSR will be compiled from birth, perhaps pre-birth. There is a suggestion that the first entry will be input by a midwife while the child is still in the womb, the next by a health visitor in the first weeks of the child’s life, subsequently by teachers, GPs, nurses, social workers, the police if necessary. We are making intelligent assumptions here, for amazingly – or should we really be amazed by any of this? – the ‘Sharing Model and Process’ fails to specify the ‘practitioners’ who will share the information included in a CVSR.
     The data will be recorded – and then shared ‘where appropriate’ – under four main categories:
     Events. The example given in the ‘Sharing Model and Process’ is the birth of a sibling. There are hundreds of other events, including the arrival of the goldfish, which will require to be noted.
     Concerns. ‘Not events, but an attribute of a person, an attribute about those associated with them’. This is the Scottish government’s official definition of a concern. What it means, grammatically and otherwise, only the Scottish government can tell us.
     Other information. This covers anything about the child which is neither an event nor a concern. The examples given are ‘status, decision’. Again there is no explanation of the meaning of these words.
     Observations. ‘These are things that practitioner’s [sic] witness that they feel may be important to record’. The example given is of a child ‘observed playing happily with her peers’.
     The observation of a child ‘playing happily with her peers’, and many other such observations, will be duly filed, for sharing ‘where appropriate’, and kept on an electronic database until the child reaches adulthood. What happens to the file then? Will it be destroyed? We do not know the answers to these questions. (See Richard Bingham opposite). But for at least 18 years, the state will know incomparably more about every child in Scotland than it has ever known before.

Is there anyone that a child can now talk to confidentially without fear of the information or emotion divulged being noted in the child’s CVSR and shared with people the child has never met?

     How secure, then, is the file? The state has a very poor record of safeguarding the records of private individuals, but until now the lost records have been those of adults. Since it is now proposed to share electronically the personal records of children, it is concerning to hear from SR readers expert in information-sharing technology that GIRFEC is a ‘nasty accident waiting to happen’ or that the software being used has ‘hidden abilities’ or that the state is in danger of creating ‘a paedophile’s address book’.
     Under what circumstances, if any, are the parents or legal guardians of the child entitled to see their child’s CVSR? The ‘Sharing Model and Process’ has nothing to say about this. It assumes that the information will be shared by ‘practitioners’ only.
     Are there safeguards in place to prevent children being targeted by a ‘practitioner’ with a grudge, and some injustice haunting the child for 18 years if not for life? It is an obvious risk.
     There is, then, the issue of the loss of trust implicit in the scheme. Is there anyone that a child can now talk to confidentially without fear of the information or emotion divulged being noted in the child’s CVSR and shared with people the child has never met? Voluntary organisations working with children seem particularly compromised by GIRFEC. Are they too part of this massive snooping operation?
     Why is the scheme not better known? Why are the vast majority of parents unaware of it? Why have the mainstream media shown so little interest in it? Why has the Scottish government promoted it on the narrow grounds of child protection, as if it were applicable to only a tiny minority of vulnerable children, without making it clear that it applies to all children? There are, of course, cynical answers to all of these questions. They appear to be the only ones available.

Where are the parents or legal guardians in this process? Or, failing them, where is the child’s independent advocate?

     Perhaps the most disturbing issue is that of consent. Consent is necessary to allow information about children to be shared, but it is stated in the official guidelines of Highland Council – the first local authority to pilot the scheme – that, for children over the age of 12, the consent is ‘usually’ given by the children themselves; and that, if children under the age of 12 are considered to have an appropriate ‘level of understanding’, they too are asked to consent. Where are the parents or legal guardians in this process? Or, failing them, where is the child’s independent advocate?
     All these questions, and many more, are unconsidered or ill-considered. ‘Scotland has quietly led the way in the national data sharing agenda with its innovative eCare programme,’ enthuses a journal devoted to the exciting new world of information-sharing. The key word in that sentence is quietly.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.