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UK.gov urged to rethink education super-database

Wrong approach to student single ID?

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UK plans to build an education super-database in which everyone from age 14 is given a single ID number should be put on hold, according to a collection of academics, businessmen and local government officials.

In a letter sent the House of Lords Science and Technology committee, the 12 individuals, who come from, among others, Cambridge University, BT, Sunderland City Council and Virgin Mobile, have argued that the Department for Education and Skills should delay awarding the contract later this month because it is approaching the whole issue from the wrong direction.

The “Managing Information Across Partners” (MIAP) programme (www.miap.gov.uk) is an attempt to link all schools, colleges, training providers and universities across the UK to one database and so save on duplication costs.

But this requires the DfES to build and run a single super-database and that is the wrong approach, the letter warns. Instead of storing all the information in one central location (with the DfES deciding who can access what), it should be up to individuals themselves to supply their information, the letter argues.

The analogy is showing your exam certificates to an employer or your driving licence to a car-hire company, rather than have those companies go direct to government for proof.

But the discussion has broader overtones in that it asks central government to accept a new philosophy of interacting with its citizens through accepted third-parties rather than build its own store of information.

The company that has been pushing this concept unsuccessfully for a number of years, Edentity, also argues that while a central database may be suitable for a project such as the proposed national ID card scheme, for the DfES to take the same approach alters the autonomous relationship that colleges and universities traditionally enjoy.

Since supplying information such as qualifications is a positive action (instead of, say, withholding a criminal record), a system where the individual has control of that information is more logical and avoids the pitfalls of a central database such as privacy concerns and a single point of failure, Edentity argues.

But the DfES remains concerned about the potential for abuse. How can it be sure that people are who they say they are? Can it rely on third-parties to run proper checks?

Problems with the “Personal Information Brokerage” approach are not yet ironed out but so many things have changed during the four-year consultation process, the argument goes, that it may be best to hold off building the new database until all options can be looked at afresh.

More people are connected to computer networks than ever before. There are new computer standards designed specifically for identity (one, Cardspace, comes as standard with Windows Vista). And then there is the recent chequered history of government departments running central databases - only this month the Home Office was embarrassed to find it had failed to add 27,500 criminal files to its database.

Is a third-party broker approach a better solution? Possibly, possibly not. But the argument is that it is worth having a second look before going down a single route.®

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