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IT systems designed to protect kids will put them at risk instead

Publication date: Nov 23, 2006 10:38:09 AM

New government policies designed to safeguard children could put them at increased risk by diverting resources and creating a surveillance culture where parents are sidelined, according to a new report by Foundation for the Information Policy Research (FIPR).


The report, ‘Children’s Databases: Safety and Privacy’, whose authors include UCL's Dr Ian Brown, is published today by the Information Commissioner. It analyses the databases being built tocollate information on children in education, youth justice, health, social work and elsewhere. These systems are linking up through the new Information Sharing Index.

The government hopes that sharing information on children will improve child welfare in the UK and reduce the incidence of serious child abuse such as in the Climbié case.

However, the report's authors point out that extending Britain’s child protection systems – from the 50,000 children at substantial risk of serious harm to the 3–4 million children with some health, education or other welfare issue – means that child protection will receive less attention.

They also conclude that the systems will intrude so much into privacy and family life that they will violate data protection law and human rights law.

They list five main concerns with the current policy:

1. The new strategy will divert resources and attention away from frontline services;

2. The government hopes that sharing information from health, education, social care and youth justice systems will enable it to predict which children will become criminals. But predictions can be highly fallible, and labelling children can stigmatise them. Children fingered by the computer as ‘bad’ may find that their teachers have lower expectations, while policemen may be more likely to treat them as suspects rather than witnesses;

3. Moving responsibility from teachers, doctors and social workers to a central system will also erode parental responsibility. Parents and children’s views will be more easily sidelined. The policy involves micromanaged targets for every child, with responsibility for achieving them placed on children’s services, rather than parents – even down to meeting ‘performance indicators’ about the amount of fruit and vegetables eaten and participation in voluntary work;

4. Children will be bullied into providing intrusive data on themselves, their parents and friends without proper safeguards, and into giving their ‘consent’ to widespread data sharing without involvement of their parents, in contravention of the law;

5. Families’ privacy and autonomy will be corroded as the government puts them under surveillance. The new policy will treat all parents as if they cannot be trusted to bring up their children and to ask for help if and when needed.

Dr Eileen Munro, of the London School of Economics, said: “When dealing with child abuse, we do need to override privacy. But the new policy extends this level of intrusion into families that are not even suspected of abusing their children, and to all concerns about children’s development. It will also over-stretch scarce resources, damage parents’ confidence and divert services from focussing on real cases of abuse.”

Director of Action on Rights for Children Terri Dowty said: “Offering services that support families is highly desirable, but you need to listen to parents and children in order to understand their problems. As it is, the Government proposes to take the child protection system and apply it to all aspects of children’s health and welfare needs, when the system doesn’t have the needed resources anyway. We also don’t want a surveillance system that forces professionals to be defensive and suspicious, and make clumsy risk assessments.”

Professor Douwe Korff, of London Metropolitan University, added: “The proposed surveillance system is contrary to the basic principles of data protection and human rights law. It replaces professional discretion (in both meanings of the word) with computerised assessments of human behaviour that are inherently fallible. The system violates private and family life and intrudes on children’s rights without justification. The Government’s aims are laudable – but this is not the way to go about achieving them.”

Professor Ross Anderson, chair of FIPR, said: “When building systems that process personal information, you can have scale, or functionality, or security. You can even have any two of these – but you can’t have all three. If we’re to have secure and functional child-protection systems, they will have to be local rather than central.”

To read the full report, visit www.fipr.org. To read the report in advance of publication, contact one of the authors below for an embargoed copy.

Notes for Editors

1. The report was produced for the Information Commissioner by the Foundation for Information Policy Research. Its authors are a multidisciplinary team from four universities and a leading children’s charity. They include child protection experts, computer scientists and a law professor.

2. The report contributes to a growing public debate about the relationship between the citizen and the state. Like the proposed ID card database and the proposed NHS databases of medical records, the children’s databases are likely to be controversial.

3. The Government is currently running a consultation on proposed regulations for the Index. The publication of this report will help NGOs and others to make informed responses to the consultation.

For further information, please contact:

Judith H Moore, UCL Media Relations Manager, Tel: +44 (0) 20 7679 7678,
Mobile: +44 (0)77333 075 96, Out-of-hours: +44 (0)7917 271 364, Email: judith.moore@ucl.ac.uk