back to article Ministers spending billions on unlawful databases

A report on the Database State (pdf) claims that 40 out of 46 key government databases are not fit for purpose, and 11 of those are "almost certainly illegal under human rights or data protection law and should be scrapped or substantially redesigned". The report comes as the government prepares to sneak legislation on data- …


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  1. alan

    its all in the database



  2. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    Americans Like Their Popguns...

    ...carrying on about how they guarantee Freedom™.

    However, I have always said that the single biggest threat to liberty is the computer database. The gun-totin' NRAers always look at me with this glazed expression, then come out with some cerebral statement like "Show me and my shotgun a computer, an' I'll show you who wins!"

    If the Nazis had had effective computer databases, the Holocaust would have been double the damage. They had to rely on an efficient, but hidebound paper system. That's one of the reasons we know so much about what happened.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Go Rowntree...

    At last someone with some clout and financial muscle speaks out.

  4. Anonymous Coward

    The green-lights are puzzling

    - Doesn't IDENT-1 contain fingerprints of the unconvicted, as specifically declared contrary to the ECHR in the Marper case?

    - Isn't VOSA regarded as conclusive when fining people and seizing and crushing their cars, with the database standing in for investigating officer, judge jury and executioner?

    - Wasn't the Driving Standards Agency base the one that mysteriously escaped into the wild while being even more mysteriously "processed" in Iowa?

    - Isn't the application of the TV Licensing Database the most widely known example of bullying presumption-of-guilt government by computer, and isn't it the basis for some extremely dubious datasharing involving social security data in connection with digital switchover?

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    Heard on the Today program

    The Toady program on Radio 4 had Michael Wills defend the Government policy by effectively saying that the benefits outweighed any illegality, and then went on to criticise Ross Andersons use of language that did not specify certainty.

    It was painfully obvious that he did not understand that scientists only speak in degrees of certainty, not absolute certainty. Ross may be a bit single minded in his attitudes towards privacy, but I really doubt that anybody can criticise his grasp of these matters.

    With bozos like this in power, I fear that 1984 may happen, even if it is 25 years late!

    Hang on, what's that whop whop whop sound I hear....

  6. General A. Annoying

    The only real surprise...

    is that it's only 11 that are "almost certainly illegal under human rights or data protection law".

    This report looks like something that the ICO should be able to get it's teeth into.


    Did I say "ICO" and "get it's teeth into" in the same sentence there?

    My mistake. I do apologise.

    I did of course mean "ICO" and "steadfastly and resolutely ignore, or claim that its not it's responsibility to do anything about Government departments wantonly breaching Data Protection legislation."

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    Michael Wills of the Ministry of Justice

    Has anybody else noticed that adverts on the telly for legal services now carry small-print that claims that they are regulated by "The Ministry of Justice".

    I can feel a need for a Guy Fawkes mask and cloak coming on. Pass me that CD of the 1812 overture if you will.

  8. John Smith Gold badge
    Thumb Up

    May I suggest

    A copy of this finds its way to every MP.

    It makes the point that the benefits of some super-duper scheme may be an illusion, but the money you will spend on it will be real.

    Thumbs up for the publishing and the detail, not the conclusions.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Today Programme

    They had govt spokes-droid on the Today Programme this morning and for anyone who missed, he totally refused to answer the question of why the databases are not illegal and just attacked the report.

  10. Sceptical Bastard

    In the news, but...

    This story is covered as a 'shock horror' by most mainstream media today.

    But to El Reg readers, I suspect, it will be more a case of "no surprises there, then."

    Sadly, we Britons are a compliant lot. A few grumbles over the toast and marmalade and the majority of the population will get on with paying the mortgage and going shopping.

    If, instead of muted peaceful protest, we'd occasionally form a howling mob and lynch the odd politician, civil servant or lawyer pour l'encourager les autres, our legislators might think a bit more carefully about trampling over our privacy.

    PS Why haven't you Vultures devoted your front page to lacrimose guff about the brown bread chavette under the headline "Our darling national treasure goes to heaven" like every other self-respecting news outlet? I'm sure there *must* be an IT angle...

  11. BoldMan

    ...and the chances of ICO growing a pair and doing something?

    Virtually nil.

  12. FlatSpot

    Good for the goose....

    Where is the centralised database that shows all MP expenses, so I can see what size plasma screen my local MP feels they need for "research purposes"???

  13. Brian Morrison

    Great report conclusion, but.....

    ....since it says what the gubmint and civil service doesn't want to hear it is likely to be ignored.

    A better solution would be to nuke the database storage hardware and all the backup sites from orbit, it's the only way to be sure!

  14. amanfromMars Silver badge

    Priceless Gems...... Somethings are Never Ever for Sale but easily Bought at Immaculate Cost

    "Like Chernobyl, some brave souls need to go in and sort it out." That would be some NEUKlearer HyperRadioProActive souls, would it, with some Crazy Plans to Quench the Destruction being Wrought ?

    Not many of those Red Adair Type Teams around, but those that are are Bound by the Nature of the Business 42Dare and Win Win for All .........

    Don't fall into the BBC trap, El Reg, of being both Judge and Jury in a CompleXXXX Case on which they are not Qualified to pass Sentence. They are skating on thin ice with their DDOS policy, even though they repeatedly advised and therefore fully cogniscent of their Obligations and Responsibilities under Royal Charter and Agreement conditions, which would be Parameters and Protocols in El Reg Bar Room Chat. But then thing are such a God Darned Awful Mess in the Public Headless Chicken Led Sector of Gravy Train Wasters and Cuckoo Feather Nesters and they would never survive Pushing Pens and Shuffling Papers and Pontificating in the Cut and Thrust of the Private Sector, where a Knave and a Scoundrel/a Crook and a Thief, is Never Concealed behind or Revealed with an Honourable Member Tag/Honourable Gentlemen Fag.

  15. N Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    Quick as a flash

    Nothing will happen

    Our shambolic government seem intent on creating as many databases as possible, legal or otherwise in support of their self styled Orwellian police state.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    That's a new one, you let the batty cow set up a database to predict who would become criminals? In violation of presumption of innocence?

    You understand that you can get 100% successful prediction of who will become a criminal, simply by choosing a random set, treating them as criminals until they become criminals, then patting yourself on the back for a successful prediction!

    You destroy their lives and then what do that have to lose and then having created these criminals you measure your success.

    She's a nightmare, she should never have been allowed to hold a position of power.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    I don't get it...

    Why do we have to pay money to see our records. They all charge an admin fee of sometimes £10+.

    They took our information, in some cases without our consent (DNA/Police database) so they should be ready to accept any financial burden put upon them by storing it.

    If they didn't want us to ask to see it, they shouldn't have taken it from us.

    I don't understand how this has been allowed to happen. Even the European courts agree it's illegal. Yet no action is taken.

    I'm voting for whoever has a strong stance on these databases. I believe they are a bigger threat than any of the rapist, terrorists, or murderers they are trying to protect us from.

  18. Sceptical Bastard

    @ amanFM

    Nice to see amanfromMars is returning to gibberish after a worryingly lucid few weeks of comments. ;)

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton


    WTF, "ONSET (a Home Office system seeking to predict future offenders)", has some civil servant been on the Whacky-Backy while reading Philip K. Dick's 'Minority Report', or is this more Whacki-Jacki, the PreCog, vision of future crimes.

    What's next, a department of adjustement?

    Paris, also a fan of Dick

  20. sig

    re. 'Americans Like Their Popguns... '

    "If the Nazis had had effective computer databases, the Holocaust would have been double the damage."

    You might want to look into the activities of the Dehomag company in Nazi Germany. An IBM franchise, they supplied punched-card machines to the Nazi state, particularly useful in sorting the population by ethnicity.

    There's a photo here:

  21. IHateWearingATie
    Thumb Down

    Hmm, not too impressed with the report

    Ignoring the fact that most media (inc the reg incidentially) misrepresented 'quarter of databases are illegal' when the report actually says 'quarter of the databases looked at are illegal' and they selected the databases on the basis of available information and public profile so it is not a representative sample......

    Anyway, I thought the report made some good points, but was a little simplistic in places, had the hallmarks of crusades against certain databases (e.g. contactpoint) by certain people (stand up Terri Dowty) and didn't make a convincing case of how things can be made efficient and fraud reduced without some kind of data sharing.

    A good example is the CMEC (formally CSA) system - the weight of the criticism seems to be that the organisation was a disaster and will remain so while they try and recover the situation. Having done reviews of the CSA a few years ago I'm not surprised it was a disaster but I can't see any analysis that shows that it should be an Amber when systems that gather similar data and process it in the same way (e.g. DWP ISCS or other legacy income based benefit processing) are not rated.

    Another example is DWP CIS - understand that it can be mis-used but it doesn't say what the use by BT is (anonymised data maybe?) and that maybe what needs to happen is not a re-think but better access controls within councils?

    Anyway, I don't trust the govt any more than anyone else, but as some who works in the area I'm disappointed with the report.

  22. James Pickett

    Quid pro quo

    "the benefits outweighed any illegality"

    I must remember that, the next time I get caught speeding or, if the downturn gets much worse, I have to resort to stealing some refreshment: " Shorry, occifer, but the benefish outwaysh the illy.. illegalnesh, innit"

  23. Eponymous Cowherd
    Black Helicopters

    Re: Today Programme

    The "spokes-droid" was Michael Wills, Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice.

    IMHO, he made a complete arse of himself on the Today programme. His only argument seemed to be that the 'red light' databases are (according to the report) only "almost certainly illegal" (the obvious inference being that "almost certainly illegal" is not *actually* illegal.

    He completely dodged the issue of the *proven* illegality of the National DNA database and basically came across as a typical "nanny knows best" Nu-Labour toady.

    I thought the questioning was pretty weak and he was let off easy, but that's only to be expected from the NLBC (Nu-Labour Broadcasting Corporation).

    Nice black helicopter because, these days, you don't have to be paranoid to think they're out to get you.

  24. Graham Marsden
    Thumb Down

    "not fit for purpose"

    What a perfect description of our current Government!

    Of course since they don't agree with this report they'll either ignore it or set up (ie rig) a "consultation exercise" whereby they ask the Police, the Security Services and various other entirely biased groups if they think that such databases are a good idea and then, amazingly enough, come back with a statement that "well all *these* groups think it's fine, so we're going to keep them and change the law..."

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    As sig just pointed out, the following is not strictly accurate. "If the Nazis had had effective computer databases, the Holocaust would have been double the damage. They had to rely on an efficient, but hidebound paper system".

    See Edwin Black's massive and thorough (though saddening) book "IBM and the Holocaust", passim. IBM's Hollerith punched card tabulators were systematically used to establish who was a Jew and where they lived. "Business as usual!"

    Oddly, the hard back costs less than the paperback right now AFAICS.

  26. michael

    #3 in the list of phrases i can not beleve a polition said this year

    "the benefits outweighed any illegality"

    I will be holding a poll later on

  27. amanfromMars Silver badge

    Coffin nails

    "If the Nazis had had effective computer databases, the Holocaust would have been double the damage. They had to rely on an efficient, but hidebound paper system. That's one of the reasons we know so much about what happened." ..... By Anonymous Coward Posted Monday 23rd March 2009 10:28 GMT

    Oh? Here there would appear to be no doubt about inefficiencies, AC .....

    "Nice to see amanfromMars is returning to gibberish after a worryingly lucid few weeks of comments. ;)" .... By Sceptical Bastard Posted Monday 23rd March 2009 11:48 GMT

    Oh for Goodness Sake, you cynical Sceptical Bastard, please pay attention and take you head out of your ASP ..... it is GBIrish ... AI PerlyGatesPython DeaLogue for Stealthy Steganographic Java Application and Global Operating Devices .... :-) And re your worries over a lucid few weeks of comments, what would be be hiding from? Are you a prisoner of yourself?

    And don't bother answering that, as there really is No Real or Virtual Need in AI and ITs NeuReal WAI of Doing Things........ and don't just take my Word for it, bend Tim Berners-Lee's ear about IT.

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I should think a whip round to finance a prosecution could (a) raise a decent amount of money and (b) almost certainly put the wind up the gummint.

    BTW has anyone noticed the expenses fiddler at the home office is proposing to recruit 60 000 informers / busy bodies / stasi ? Presumably they will enjoy themselves telling people they can't take photos because of the security..

  29. Luther Blissett

    @Sceptical Bastard

    > a case of "no surprises there, then."

    So how about this:

    It won't strain your little grey cells like amfM, but let us all know you didn't busta blood vessel.

  30. John A Blackley

    A bright new dawn

    If it is acceptable for a politician to shrug off crime by saying, "The benefits outweigh any illegality" then shurely a new day has dawned.

    Could anyone possibly argue that the benefits of stringing up politicians from the nearest lamppost do not outweigh any illegality?

  31. Anonymous Coward

    Phil Woolas - another NuLab Data Fascist

    I laughed at Phil Woolas's justification of the new immigration database (the one that records where you travel to, who with and the credit card details that you used to pay for it with). Apparently there's no infringement of human rights because "all of this data exists already" and that all they are doing is "bringing it together in one place".

    Well my password for my work computer, my credit card PIN, who I voted for and every other piece of 'data' in my life exists already - does that mean that him and every other crapulent turd in the government are entitled to know it?

    I don't know what infuriates me more, the fact that they are doing this stuff illegally or the fact that they think we are so fucking stupid that we would actually believe their flimsy justifications.

    I'd love to think that the next election will solve the problem, but all we'll be doing is swapping one bunch of parasitic leeches for another. Personally I'd like to roll out the red carpet for any Al Queda operative that wants to come to this country and wipe out every last one of the thieving lying bastards.

    I wish this Icon had bigger, hotter flames.

  32. Sillyfellow

    justice minister says ok to ignore law

    Michael Wills, Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice, on television this morning says: "the benefits outweighed any illegality"

    is it just me or is this total nonsense. either the law is the law, or none of it has any meaning. the government outright saying publicly that it's ok to ignore breaking the law if gvt think so.

    one rule for them and a different one for us? or are we all supposed to follow the same rules?

    if gvt can openly break any law they want without any reprisals, then surley i can too.

    our UK gvt is way beyond a complete and utter bad joke, and i can't wait to help vote them out.

  33. EdwardP


    Every story like this I ask the same question:

    How do any of these databases square with the Data Protection Act?

    IANAL, but my lay understanding of the DPA is that:

    A) I can see all info held on me on request.

    B) I can have any and all of my information removed, again, on request.

    As far as I know, Governments are no more immune to the law than the public, so can sombody explain this apparent contradiction?

  34. Tony


    I have not read through the whole report, but have covered the first 30 pages - I'll read the rest tonight.

    I can understand your feeling about the report, but I would have to say that the methodology used by the authors appears to be a fairly standard one. They cannot possibly include all databases, so they have to select a number that will be representative; maybe they have selected some of the more obvious ones, but that is probably because those are the ones that they can actually get some data on - there is no point in trying to prepare a report if you cannot get sound data to analyse.

    I take the point about recommendations, but the problem with these reports is that in many cases, the scope of the report actually precludes them from this, or severely restricts what they may do.

    I think the report makes some good points - however, I dare say that the PTB will ignore it as they do with most others.

  35. RW
    IT Angle

    You missed something

    The Guardian had an article on this:

    which included these interesting remarks:

    "There are now thousands of databases operating in Whitehall. The Serious Organised Crime Agency inherited 500 when it was created, and is now attempting to rationalise them into 50 or 60."

    ISTM that it's better that Whitehall remain encumbered with a profusion of separate databases and that the SOCA cease its efforts to rationalise its own 500 into 50 or 60. One doesn't want the snoopers and privacy eroders to become more efficient.

    The whole thing is ominous beyond words. Britain isn't becoming a police state; it has already become one.

    [Readers may insert self-selected rants about Wakki Jakki and the lying idiots in NuLab at this point.]

    PS: I'm waiting for someone to fight a legal charge on the grounds that equity is a higher good than either common law or statutory law, and a law which leads to unjust, unfair results is de facto itself unjust, unfair, and hence unenforceable. It would be amusing to see an independent minded judge bring a lot of NuLabour's stasificatory legislation tumbling to the ground as dead letters.

    But, sadly, if that happened, Wakki Jakki would probably merely announce that she was "studying the decision" and then proceed to ignore it.

  36. MinionZero

    Plutocracy's Thought Police

    ONSET (a Home Office system seeking to predict future offenders) is a new one on me as well. So they are going to profile every child to predict future offenders. Sounds great. Just one problem. All adults in the UK were once children. That means everyone in future generations in the UK are going to be feed into this system. NuLabour already consider political opposition as an offense, not least the removal of the right to protest against them, anywhere near them. So now children in the UK are going to be profiled to see if they will break any rule groups like NuLabour decide to think up. They and their kind are in power so they make the laws. They choose what is considered illegal. Now they can profile everyone to find out *who may disobey them*. Great, can't see how that level of power could ever be abused, to give them in power ever more money and power.

    Meanwhile the ever more corrupt Plutocracy in charge are helping themselves to billions of tax payers money, to hold up their rich lifestyles and help their rich friends, thereby showing they are now not even a Plutocracy (ruled by the rich) but actually bordering into a Kleptocracy (ruled of thieves). So who is going to protect us from the people in power, when they are the ones making the rules to suit their own needs at our expense (literally!). They have become so corrupt, yet they are rushing into Big Brother to gain ever greater power to control us all. How much power do they need to silence and evade most opposition, when they are already getting away with so much and no one can speak out against them.

  37. TimNevins

    IBM in the days of wayback

    True. IBM did help in the purges.

    What is interesting is that before the purges began the consenus was taken (Phase 1).

    Being of the 'nothing to hide, nothing to fear' and 'be patriotic and trust the goverment' brigade the populace saw no harm in surrendering their information.

    Only later when that information was subverted and used to aid in the purges did the understanding dawn on many(Phase 2).

    Right now we are at Phase 1....

    I do not want to be around for Phase 2

  38. IHateWearingATie


    It would be helpful to describe the selection criteria - bit strange to put ESA there in the DWP section and then very little detail (presumably because they know little about it - should have asked me...).

    It also means that there are a number of 'databases' like ESA (incidentially a great government IT success, not that it is ever reported) that are not given a privacy rating bringing down the total number of greens (and so skew the proportions) so they can get their 'quarter are illegal' headline.

  39. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    Does "batty cow " = "wacqui bint"?

    So this only covers "official" gubmint "we have all your base".

    What about all the "unoffocial" databases held by the government.

    Ok, that's stretching it some...rather, ask yourself, what about all the private databases about you compiled and held and sold and resold by private industry?

    You have to ask yourself...if that information is about ME, why don't I have any control over it?

    You have to understand, the droid (these are not the databases you're looking for) cannot actually TELL you the databasi are "illegal" as he/she/it is not a deciding judge in the matter and therefore cannot offer a real official LEGAL opiinion. Anyway, there's a world of difference between illegal and immoral and apparently the wankers never learned better or either.

  40. David Pollard

    @ MinionZero - profiling children

    The name ONSET is a new one on me too, but the government's idea of using behavioural profile databases to identify offenders before they offend is not new.

    Brief details had surfaced on Radio 4 several years ago. As I recall, the research was being conducted by groups at the universities of Warwick and Brighton; together with Kingston Social Services. (As this is from hearing about it just once, I may have mis-remembered.)

    A large variety of recordable aspects of behaviour had been used in multi-factorial analysis, such as being late for a doctor or dentist's appointment, being cheeky to teachers, being in a single parent family, living in a particular area... A major part of the research at that time had been to trim the number of categories down from well over 100 in order to make the data more manageable. Early results suggested that the analysis could be used quite well to predict which youngsters would later engage in criminal behaviour.

    Though I spent some while searching at intervals using a range of keywords, I haven't been able to discover more details. It goes without saying that I see this as a gross and intrusive use of technology. Equally it's clear that data from a variety of apparently innocuous sources could be combined to feed such a profiling system.

    Perhaps El Reg could be persuaded to use its connections to discover what plans there may be in this area, what systems have been mooted and what progress has been made? Or perhaps a researcher involved with this hotbed of control freakery who still has ownership of his/her soul might be encouraged accidentally to copy details to a USB stick and post it in the direction of Wikileaks, or whatever it is that one does these days.

  41. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Turn the Tables

    We should demand that a basic Human Right is to know who (which NAMED individual) has been accessing our data.

    Every Snooper should be named on a public-access database, with their location, job-title.

  42. RW

    @ EdwardP

    Quoth he: "As far as I know, Governments are no more immune to the law than the public"

    A reminder that Britain cut the head off one king and drove another into exile as part of making the point that even the king is not above the law.

    I imagine Mr. Brown and his henchwoman Ms. Smith would dismiss this comment with a sniff that "it doesn't fit in with our socialist goal of creating the New British Man."

  43. Nebulo

    'Britain is out of line with other developed countries'

    How very true. *And* "not fit for purpose". El Reg, you're so full of truth sometimes.

    And, Tories, LibDems ... it's not only this voter who's still waiting to hear someone pledge to rip out this obscene, snooping infrastructure ... hello ... anyone there? ...

  44. Kevin Bailey


    When a politician says "the benefits outweigh the illegality" it's time to change my vote.

    Take heed Labour - this is the great-grandson of a miner from Jarrow.

    Obviously won't vote Conservative - but the whigs have a new supporter.

  45. Anonymous Coward

    Mr. Plod would you..

    What we need is a public database of MP's perks and expense claims, lobbyists they talk to, fees they receive, dates of meetings, who paid, who was there, where was it, phone calls, from which phone, who to, purpose of call, holidays,where to, who paid, who went. Start with Jack Straw

  46. Tony


    "It would be helpful to describe the selection criteria "

    I don't disagree - in many reports, that information is left out. However, if I am not mistaken, there was a directive some years back (vague memory of 2002, but I'm probably wrong) that specifically indicated that the selection criteria used should not be given in too much detail in these kinds of reports.

    I believe that the thinking behind this was that if the details of how the data was selected were indicated, that would in itself invalidate some reports (I sort of see the point, but I'm not sure that I agree.)

    It's a bit like the market reserchers asking potential research candidates if they work in certain industries such as media, jouranalism - it's not that they don't want to hear from those people, but people in those fields would have a different way of answering questions that can skew results. As I say, I don't entirely agree with it, but there you go.

    "great government IT success, not that it is ever reported"

    Welcome to my world - When things go well for 5 years, no one even notices, but get one thing wrong on one morning and it makes front page news.

  47. druck

    No stringing up

    I don't really want to see comments about stringing up politicians, we are a democracy after all. What we do have is the mental health act (1983) enabling self deluded individuals who are a danger to the public, to be indefinitely sectioned and removed to a secure institution, where they can receive the treatment they need (a long course of electro convulsive therapy in my opinion). After many years they may eventually be released back in to society, when they are in a position to value it's rights and freedoms.

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