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Tens of thousands of kids need to be protected from ContactPoint users

So says UK.gov

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Data on about 55,000 children will need to be protected from estranged and abusive family members, or because they are under police protection, according to figures from local authorities.

The protected information - part of the forthcoming ContactPoint child protection database - will include their address and details of the school they attend. ContactPoint users, who The Register revealed yesterday could easily number more than a million, will only be able to access basic data about "shielded" children: their name, age and gender.

Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) minister Beverly Hughes revealed on Wednesday what she decribed as "very early indications" that 0.5 per cent of the 11 million young people expected to be included in ContactPoint will be shielded.

"The decision to shield a child record will be taken on a case-by-case basis, based on the level of threat posed if information about their whereabouts becomes available," Hughes said in response to a written parliamentary question from Liberal Democrat MP David Laws. Following delays, the database is scheduled to be opened in January but there is no public information campaign to encourage guardians who believe their child should be shielded to come forward.

Professor Ross Anderson of the Foundation for Information Policy research has been critical of the lack of promotion. He said: "If a local council has a family living in their area who are members of a Witness Protection scheme – they won't know. If they have children in the area who are sons and daughters of a well-known pop star - they won't know."

Both opposition parties have called for ContactPoint to be scrapped, arguing that holding information on every single child in England and Wales is unnecessary and will be insecure. The government says ContactPoint will help to prevent tragedies such as the abuse and murder of Victoria Climbié, who was killed by her guardians in 2000 despite repeated visits from doctors and social services.

The plan for some children to be shielded has been claimed by critics as an admission that there are inherent dangers in the wider scheme, a claim rejected by the government. In 2007 DCSF minister Lord Adonis told parliament: "I do not believe that the fact that some records will be shielded indicates that ContactPoint will be insecure. It is simply an additional safeguard which is entirely consistent with the risk-based approach in the Data Protection Act, which requires security to be appropriate to the harm that may be suffered by the individual.

The decision about whether a child will be shielded will usually be made (pdf) by ContactPoint users through a web interface. Parents who want to have their children shielded from users will be able to apply to their council, which will then determine whether they or their carers are put at "increased risk of significant harm" by ContactPoint.

The Conservatives have proposed a smaller database that would only share details on those judged to be at risk. In a controversial partisan memo in October, DCSF officials said such a scheme would stigmatise troubled children.

But the use of shielding is itself stigmatising, ContactPoint opponents charge. If a child is shielded database users will effectively be told that he or she has a troubled family, they argue. It's also unclear whether shielding would protect full ContactPoint records from a request to view it under the Data protection Act from an estranged guardian who still has legal responsibility for a child.

The DCSF did not respond to Register questions on shielding. ®

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