Digital dangers

Computers rule the world, despite their innate and unpredictable
vulnerability to mechanical failure (a music graduate of my
acquaintance lost three years of doctoral work when, without
warning, his computer hard drive sheared off its mount).

Then there is software fallibility, input error, criminal attack,
power cuts – the list is extensive. Computers are as good, bad,
efficient or destructive as the people who use them. Our
computer-dependency is an open invitation to crime on a massive
scale, where the actual vehicle confers anonymity on the
perpetrator, and computers have made child pornography an
unstoppable, insatiable, multi-billion dollar worldwide

The Data Protection Act 1998 is designed to maintain the integrity
of the millions of computerised records held on every individual.
In December the trial of Ian Huntley and the inquest on the death
of two pensioners whose gas supply had been disconnected appeared
to reveal lethal defects in the act, its provisions and its
interpretation. In respect of Huntley, on whom Humberside Police
had destroyed data relating to 10 instances of alleged rape,
unlawful sex with underage girls and indecent assault, a Home
Office inquiry will commence public hearings in February: comment
other than on the general issue of police intelligence and
record-keeping is therefore inappropriate.

Early in January, The Sun reported the case of a
pharmacist who, having been beaten unconscious in an attack, traced
his attacker through the pharmacy records. The police apparently
refused to act on the information because it was acquired in breach
of the legislation, although Shelagh Gaskill, a data protection
expert, said that they could “clearly have taken that information
completely lawfully” (The Lawyer, 6 January, 2004). Commenting on
the need for better training in respect of the act, she added that
businesses use the legislation to “hide their organisational
administrative weaknesses”.

The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) disclosed that the
Information Commission (formerly Data Protection) had taken
preliminary enforcement action against two police forces over
retention of data relating to convictions, including serious
assault offences. ACPO is concerned that deleting such data will
“seriously undermine the ability of the Criminal Records Bureau
toÉ safeguard the interests of children in particular”. In the
matter of police record-keeping, there is obviously a pressing need
for clarification of the act, although the Huntley case has already
demonstrated the catastrophic shortcomings of database records as a
primary tool for the prevention and detection of crime. In general,
criminals fall foul of human intelligence – the recognition of an
individual or modus operandi, accumulated local knowledge,
instinct, dogged persistence and, sometimes, a leap of the
imagination which no database, however perfect, can ever match.
Regrettably most databases, reliant as they must always be on
variable human input, are far from perfect and we suffer
inconvenience, embarrassment and even real distress, as a
consequence. By extension, breaches of the act probably occur on a
daily basis and on a huge scale. For example, from the one
database, the Pensions Service has recently supplied me with two
entirely different pension projections, neither of which takes
account of National Insurance contributions made since 1997; those
seem to have disappeared into some electronic black hole, which
makes a mockery of the integrity of the record. Last year, that
same database denied a north Wales woman her retirement pension on
the grounds that she was dead; she battled long and hard to prove
it wrong.

George and Gertrude Bates, both in their eighties, were found dead
two months after their gas supply had been disconnected because of
an unpaid bill. British Gas claims that the Data Protection Act
forbids disclosure of information on debt: hence, the company could
not alert social services to the couple’s plight. The inquest on
71-year-old Robert Jones, also found dead months after both gas and
electricity had been disconnected, has been adjourned pending
further investigation. In these cases, arguments about whether
blame should be laid on the act or its interpretation miss the
point. The sole function of utility companies is to provide
services that are vital to life. Whether or not utilities remain in
the private sector, they should be forbidden from disconnecting
supplies to any household that includes children, older people, and
disabled people. The Bates owed British Gas £140; it proved to
be the price our society puts on two lives.

Alison Taylor is a novelist, a former senior child care
worker and the winner of the 1996 Community Care Readers’

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