Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/01/15/pms_mob/
The 'mob' to advise PM on gov data sharing
String 'em up!
The Prime Minister is to set up focus groups to ask the British public whether the government should be allowed to keep tabs on them with a 'super database'.
The public consultation will be managed by Ipsos MORI and conclude in a public debate at Number 10 in March.
This will all be over and done just before the publication in April of a joint review by the Cabinet Office and the Department of Constitutional Affairs of the laws presently restricting the government from building a "super database" or, more specifically, restricting government departments from sharing their data as liberally as they would like.
The Data Protection Act protects people's privacy and liberty by ensuring government departments treat the information they have very guardedly, not sharing with anyone else unless under strict controls.
The line of questioning being proposed for the focus groups will make people consider how much state intrusion they would stomach if it meant they got better public services - to get them thinking about their "rights and responsibilities".
This, according to MORI, would be considered with such questions as, "What areas should automatically be a state responsibility - Defence? And where is there joint responsibility - Health?," which rang an off-key harmony with the government's pressure on smokers and the overweight because it believes they use more than their fair share of public services.
When the Cabinet Office and DCA announced their review of the legal restrictions on data sharing in September, rights and responsibilities were also a theme. The government believed that with shared data it might better finger the parents of "at-risk children".
The Information Commissioner, the UK's data protection guardian, gave an idea of how such ideas might widen the gaps between the haves and the have-nots on the publication of the report with which it warned Britain was sleep walking into a surveillance society.
Since the government started broadcasting the rabble-rousing slogan, "if you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear", and opposition politicians started scoring points against the Home Office over its inability to know the every movement of ex-offenders after they had served their time, it has become easier to imagine how a rights and responsibilities focus group might work.
The Home Office has, accordingly, already joined the clarion call for people to accept a new social contract in which the state pokes its nose into people's business for their own safety.
But not everyone is convinced. Shami Chakrabarti, director of campaign group Liberty, told the The Independent: "When absolute rules like the prohibition on torture are compromised by our political rulers, how much harder to defend more subtle and qualified rights like the presumption of privacy from the chilling slogan politics of 'nothing to hide, nothing to fear'."
Register readers have their own characteristic take on this delicate question of whether there is anyone alive who has nothing to hide: "Well, how much do you earn then?" and, "Do you have curtains?".
Those charged in this country with protecting our freedoms are deeply suspicious of the government's plans for a super database that knows what you might rather hide.
In September, assistant commissioner Jonathan Bamford told a hall of government and industry database statespeople that they should show restraint as they build more powerful databases.
"We are very concerned there is a proper approach to information sharing," he said. "Simply having the increased ability to share information shouldn't be the rationale for more information sharing - data protection safeguards should be seen as an objective, not a barrier."
A barrier, however, was exactly what the Prime Minister's office said the Data Protection Act was when it opened its review earlier that same month. It and the DCA wanted to relax the law so it could better aim the wagging finger of the nanny-state, to paraphrase them loosely.
Liberal Democrat Leader Menzies Campbell said: “There is no part of people's lives which is free from snooping. State intervention and control expands every day. It is time we put a halt to this.”
While the Conservative's said it would be a waste of money.®