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Report raises child index alarm

Protection measures could put children more at risk

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The Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR) says that government policies designed to safeguard children could divert resources and create a surveillance culture where parents are sidelined.

Titled Children's Databases: Safety and Privacy, the report was written by the FIPR for the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) and published on 22 November.

It analyses the databases being built to collate information on children in education, youth justice, health, social work, and elsewhere. These systems are linking up through the new Information Sharing Index.

The government hopes that sharing information on children will improve child welfare in the UK and reduce the incidence of serious child abuse such as in the Climbié case. But the report's authors argue that it means child protection will receive less attention.

They also conclude that the systems will intrude so much into privacy and family life that they will violate data protection law and human rights law.

They list five main concerns:

  • The new strategy will divert resources and attention away from frontline services.
  • The government hopes that sharing information from health, education, social care and youth justice systems will enable it to predict which children will become criminals. But predictions can be highly fallible, and labelling children can stigmatise them.
  • Moving responsibility from teachers, doctors and social workers to a central system will also erode parental responsibility. Parents and children's views will be more easily sidelined.
  • Children will be bullied into providing intrusive data on themselves, their parents and friends without proper safeguards, and into giving their consent to widespread data sharing without involvement of their parents, in contravention of the law.
  • Families' privacy and autonomy will be corroded as the government puts them under surveillance. The new policy will treat all parents as if they cannot be trusted to bring up their children and to ask for help if and when needed.

Dr Eileen Munro of the London School of Economics said: "When dealing with child abuse, we do need to override privacy. But the new policy extends this level of intrusion into families that are not even suspected of abusing their children, and to all concerns about children's development.

"It will also over-stretch scarce resources, damage parents' confidence and divert services from focusing on real cases of abuse."

Professor Douwe Korff of London Metropolitan University added: "The proposed surveillance system is contrary to the basic principles of data protection and human rights law. It replaces professional discretion (in both meanings of the word) with computerised assessments of human behaviour that are inherently fallible."

The ICO published a paper on the issue on the same day, and said there is a need to look carefully at the implications of collecting information on children.

Assistant information commissioner Jonathan Bamford said: "Just because technology means that things can be done with personal information, it does not always follow that they should be done. Public trust and confidence will be lost if there is excessive unwarranted intrusion into family life or if some of the issues that have been identified actually materialise."

In 2007 the ICO will publish a code of practice for public sector organisations to ensure they share information appropriately and comply with the principles of the Data Protection Act. It will also consider whether further information would be helpful, such as:

  • producing guidance on consent issues;
  • investigating the production of easy to read guidance to help social services staff (and possibly health and educational professionals) explain data protection to their clients;
  • producing new guidance aimed specifically at young people aged 12 to 18.

The ICO has also identified priority areas for discussion with the government, such as minimising the risks from profiling, how to reflect the views of parents and children, and data quality and security.

The government is currently running a consultation on proposed regulations for the Information Sharing Index.

This article was originally published at Kablenet.

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