Meet the man who stands between private lives and the right to know
Bank details, police files, credit ratings, shopping histories, tax and health records…one official is trying to keep it all confidential
Alice Miles and Helen Rumbelow / London Times | October 28 2006
THERE seem to be an awful lot of locked doors and long passages to negotiate before we meet Richard Thomas. The defender of those twin pillars of British values — our right to privacy, and government by an open democracy — is found in a small, bare room that feels like an interrogation suite. The interview is watched by his information police, his private public relations company.
You probably have not heard of Mr Thomas, a mild, middle-aged man with the manner of a slightly baffled bureaucrat. But he is an unlikely freedom fighter in a battle that is becoming more fraught: the battle for information. On you.
As the Information Commissioner he is the man standing between you and a bad credit rating, between you and an inaccurate police record blacklisting you for life, between you and the Government hiding crucial decisions about your future. And now, between you and the companies, such as banks, playing fast and loose with your confidential financial details.
“We're waking up in a surveillance society,” he said. “And when you start to see how many well-intentioned, apparently beneficial schemes are in place to monitor people's activities and movements, I think that does raise concerns. It can stigmatise people. I have worries about technology being used to identify classes of people who present some sort of risk to society. And I think there are real anxieties about that.
“A company can send you a mailshot and say you're clearly the type of person who likes this sort of holiday, they can profile you. In the same way, public authorities can profile you,” he said.
“You can manipulate data in a way now which builds up a very full picture, which may not be the right one. It may be an inaccurate picture. To treat somebody as a suspect when there's no more than a potential for fraud is a serious matter.”
Scary stuff; and he got scarier.
“I would question whether there's a greater case for convergence between police files and tax files and between bank records and health records,” he said. “There's a trend towards greater convergence and it can classify people in ways which may be wrong and artificial. But there is also the risk of mistakes. There are risks the information is going to be mishandled.”
The threat is out there, but it's all a little vague — which, given that Mr Thomas is dealing with theoretical dangers, may be understandable. His worst fear is of all these statesponsored monitoring systems linking up to one electronic Big Brother.
Take the children's register: within a couple of years the Government aims to record electronically basic details about every child in England, including their address, school and doctor. Any professional who has concerns about a child will be able to add a red flag to their file, so that if others involved are also worried they can get in touch and share information. Is this an essential child-protection measure or a sinister bar-coding of childhood?
“I'm not persuaded that it's necessary to set up an index of every child in the country where the rationale is to do with ensuring the social, educational, general health, wellbeing and thriving of all children,” he said.
“Now, if there are going to be flags of concern, let's be precise — what do we mean by a flag of concern? If a child is being abused or there are very strong allegations of abuse, that's clearly a concern. Is it a concern that the child is not thriving at French GCSE? We have to define this more precisely. And I think it's part of our job to force those who are bringing forward these schemes to be as clear and open as possible on what they're doing, why they're doing it.”
So Mr Thomas tries to police this line between what should be your own affair and what it is necessary for the State to know. His job tugs him in both directions, upholding the Data Protection Act on the one hand, and forcing openness through the Freedom of Information Act on the other.
With the identity card database winging our way, as well as an NHS database that will hold every patient's medical records, plus the children's register, the Government seems to be seizing ever-greater control of citizens' private details. This alarms the Information Commissioner.
“It's not just unwarranted intrusions into privacy, it's also the dangers of inaccurate information, of mistakes being made, of information being held too long,” he said. “And I think we've got to have some concept of rehabilitation. We have to have some sort of concept that young people do misbehave, young people do engage in antisocial activity. Should that blight their lives almost forever?”
He seemed to be talking about the criminal records database rather than the children's database; Mr Thomas slipped between the registers so frequently that we could have lost him altogether. The children's database will not hold any information about criminal records, although it may “flag up” that a child has had contact with the police, which could, of course, be damaging if, say, a school was selecting pupils and checked the database.
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