Google decided some time ago that their algorithms are so good that the old Humanities/Social Sciences/Hard Sciences button on Google Scholar did no longer earn its keep. As a Social Scientist trying to remember the exact title of that dear old Dalton 1984 piece, I could not agree less.
Arguably, no western democracy has more surveillance cameras per citizen than the UK. I would also like to think that few European countries are collecting data on their citizens on such an Orwellian scale. In a recent report, the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust has assessed 46 major government databases. Somewhat predictably, the result is devastating. Only six databases are “effective, proportionate and necessary”, 29 “have significant problems, and may be unlawful” whereas the remaining 11 are “almost certainly illegal under human rights or data protection law”.
Examples of the latter include the National DNA Database, which holds information on 2 million innocent people including 39,000 children, and (my pet hate) ONSET, a system which brings together information on children from various sources to predict which children will offend in the future. Another nightmare is the Jacqui Smith‘s dream project of a system that registers every phone call made, every email sent, and every visit to any web page.
While the traffic light system used by the trust conflates two distinct dimensions (efficiency and data protection standards/human rights), it is certainly useful to get an overview of a very complex situation, and to identify the biggest problems.
The publication of the report created quite a splash in the media. The Guardian highlights the case of a 13-year old with a criminal record for taking part in a playground fight, and a single mother who does not dare to discuss her mental problems with her GP for fear of loosing her children to the social services, though I could not find any sources for these examples. The BBC throws in an interview with Ross Anderson, Cambridge IT professor, and one of the authors of the report. And here are even more articles on the Rowntree report , most of them basically summarising the executive summary.