Database State

A small article in April’s Information World Review drew my attention to this report, Database State, by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. Seems there are some vacancies for good information professionals.


In October 2007 Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs lost two discs containing a copy of the entire child benefit database. Suddenly issues of privacy and data security were on the front page of most newspapers and leading the TV news bulletins. The old line ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’ was given a very public rebuttal.

The millions of people affected by this data loss, who may have thought they had nothing to hide, were shown that they do have much to fear from the failures of the database state.

In the wake of the HMRC fiasco, and all the subsequent data losses that came to light in the months that followed, the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust sponsored a meeting of academics and activists with an interest in privacy. These experts attempted to map Britain’s database state,
identifying the many public sector databases that collect personal information about us. The task proved to be too big for one seminar, highlighting the need for a more in-depth study of the ‘Transformational Government’ programme.

The Trust, therefore, commissioned the Foundation for Information Policy Research to produce this report, which provides the most comprehensive map of Britain’s database state currently available.

Of the 46 databases assessed in this report only six are given the green light. That is, only six are found to have a proper legal basis for any privacy intrusions and are proportionate and necessary in a democratic society. Nearly twice as many are almost certainly illegal under human rights or data protection law and should be scrapped or substantially redesigned, while the remaining 29 databases have significant problems and should be subject to an independent review.

We hope this report will help to highlight the scale of the problem we are facing and inform the ongoing debate about the sort of society we want to live in and how new information systems can help us get there.


David Shutt
Lord Shutt of Greetland
Chair of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd.
March 2009″