No need to fear a database society?

Peter Bradwell of Demos raises some interesting points in his summary of their new report on people’s attitudes to state databases in the UK, but he also sets up a straw man, and as I am one of the people implicated, I object to this. He argues that there are many positive sides to databases (of course!) and contrasts this with the former Information Commissioner’s statement on ‘sleepwalking into a surveillance society’ as ‘fear-based’. However, the reaction of the ICO was to commission a report in 2006, which I coordinated, to examine the concept of the ‘surveillance society’. This was pretty balanced and stressed the positive aspects of surveillance as much as the negative, indeed it did exactly the kind of assessment that Demos claims it’s doing here. So it’s rather ironic that the author is trying to stop people being afraid of the word ‘database’ yet still promoting the idea that ‘surveillance’ is automatically a bad thing to be feared! However, I would urge rather less optimism. We’re currently writing an update to our 2006 report and it’s pretty clear that in most areas, the UK has gone further, faster, than even we anticipated.

The basic argument of Demos appears to be that if all of this was under some kind of accountable control, then perhaps one might have grounds for optimism. But that’s true of just about almost anything and it’s a rather big ‘if’. What are the developments in the direction of accountability that they have seen which give rise for optimism? There are none in the piece, and the report itself is about what people think about state databases. That is very interesting from a political point of view, but unfortunately doesn’t tell us much about what is actually happening or likely to happen, only what people believe about it. Of actual examples of increasing accountability recently, I can only think of the state’s retreat on RIPA, but that wasn’t particularly profound, and the only other serious changes have come when the British government’s hand has been forced by European Court decisions (on the National DNA Database, for example)… can Demos help me out here with more than just the fact that people don’t think it’s that bad? I will have to read the full report and get back to you…

Author: David

I'm David Murakami Wood. I live on Wolfe Island, in Ontario, and am Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Surveillance Studies and an Associate Professor at Queen's University, Kingston.

2 thoughts on “No need to fear a database society?”

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