Reading the Bumps

Any one who believes that the civil liberties objections to the introduction of identity cards and the near unchecked growth of the database state and the surveillence society are ‘shockingly feeble‘ or a very middle-class disorder would do well to take the time to read both the Information Commissioner’s Office’s ‘Issues Paper: Protecting Children’s Personal Information’ and the Foundation for Information Policy Research’s report on which it is based, Children’s Databases – Safety and Privacy before writing off such concerns.

Towards the end of the Victorian era, a number of loosely related pseudosciences underwent a surge in popularity, the best known of which were those of physiognomy and phrenology. Both purported, falsely, to enable their practioners to make judgments and even predictions about the character of individuals based solely on certain physical characteristics, either the outer appearance in general, but particularly the face, in the case of physignomy, or the shape of the head in phrenology. Both drew their popularity, in part, from false attributions that were used to suggest that these pseudosciences had been validated by what were, at the time, some of the newest and most modern (and fashionable) advances in science; Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Means of Natural Selection and the emerging social science of Psychology and both found their way into, amongst other things, the developing field of criminology, where it was suggested that they could be used not only to identify criminals but also to predict which individuals would, and would not, possess crimial traits or tendancies.

Both were, of course, complete and utter rubbish.

One concern is what we might call ‘e-discrimination’. In the past, it has been well documented that children who were black, or from poor neighbourhoods or travelling families, suffered disproportionate police attention because of the expectation that they would be more likely to offend. The expectation could easily turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. A system that attempts to predict which children will become delinquent, by totting up negative indicators from health, school and other records, runs the serious risk of recreating the same problems – especially as the information, analysis and professional opinions it contains will be made available to many of the public-sector workers who come into contact with the child. A perfectly law-abiding youngster from a difficult home background, who has perhaps struggled to overcome learning and health difficulties, may find at every turn that teachers expect less, and that police attention is more likely. As the causes of this discrimination are online, the youngster cannot mitigate them simply by dressing neatly and being polite. The data and algorithms used as a basis for discrimination might not be accessible to the victim (whether practically or at all) and thus a victim of unjustified discrimination might end up with no recourse. This raises serious data protection concerns relating to the appropriateness of collecting, processing and retaining the data.

Children’s Databases – Safety and Privacy, pp2


Nor is the criminal-justice community happy. Britain’s most eminent criminologist, Professor David Farrington FBA (whose work has been used extensively to justify the children’s database program) sounds a warning note:

“Caution is, however, required. In particular, any notion that better screening can enable policy makers to identify young children destined to join the 5 per cent of offenders responsible for 50-60 per cent of crime is fanciful. Even if there were no ethical objections to putting “potential delinquent” labels round the necks of young children, there would continue to be statistical barriers. Research into the continuity of anti-social behaviour shows substantial flows out of – as well as in to – the pool of children who develop chronic conduct problems. This demonstrates the dangers of assuming that anti-social five-year-olds are the criminals or drug abusers of tomorrow, as well as for highlighting the undoubted opportunities that exist for prevention.”

Children’s Databases – Safety and Privacy, pp3

Now, perhaps, do you understand why civil libertarians are so concerned about these developments?

This is not paranoia speaking, but experience.

Given the capability to monitor almost every aspect of a citizen’s life, the state will ultimately find a way to do just that no matter how much it promises not to at the time that the monitoring systems are constructed. All it takes is time.

Justifications can be found, maybe even manufactured. Safeguards can be rolled back and then dispensed with. The state’s use of surveillence, monitoring and profiling will expand to meet its technical capabilities; after all if it has those capabilities, why not use them to their fullest extent.
When the collection of DNA samples was first introduced in the 1990’s, the Conservative government of the day imposed strict regulations, which required the Police to destroy any samples and profiles obtained in the course of an investigation that were found to have no relevence to the case.

The Police disregarded the law and retained those profiles.

By the time this came to light, the government had changed and New Labour was in power. How did they respond to the revelation that the Police had disregarded the law in order to compile a DNA database containing profiles individuals to which they had no legal right?

They changed the law not only to permit the retention of DNA profiles but applied these changes retrospectively to legitimise what the Police had already done.

That’s not speculation, that actually happened within the lifespan of this present government.

How then can we trust a future government to abide by commitments given now as to how these systems will, and will not be used?

We can’t. In fact due to the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty and the principle that no parliament may bind a successor we cannot build in any safeguards against the future use, and abuse, of these systems by the state.

Physiognomy, or rather its modern equivaltent, profiling, appears to be back with a vengence.

(hat tip: Not Saussure)

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