Named Persons II: Scotland’s next mass civilian database

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
UK policy

Last week I was chatting with some rather cracking professional digital rights activists. The conversation included my attempt to get them, from their London/English perspective, to understand the different cultural approach to mass data collection and databases that we live with here in Scotland. All too often, data collection projects which would be seen as violations of privacy, data protection, and the right to private life anywhere else are seen as “unquestionably legitimate and benign” here.

That is not just my opinion. Last summer the UK Supreme Court struck down the Scottish Government’s Named Person legislation, a mass data collection and sharing regime involving every child under the age of 18. The data collection (for the children’s benefit, because won’t somebody think of the children) would allow the whole of the Scottish public sector to obtain huge amounts of data on children, parents, and their private lives not for the purposes of safeguarding, but for “ensuring wellbeing” – a wooly phrase for bringing social engineering into every home.  The Supreme Court judgement used the actual word “totalitarian” to describe the government’s aims.

The Scottish Government is determined to implement the legislation regardless and is redrafting it for its second iteration.

In the meantime, they have announced plans for a second mass data collection and sharing database, which once again is presented as being in the public interest.

Won’t somebody think of the OAPs

Yesterday the Herald published a piece titled Grey Matters: Scotland’s police aim to build database of dementia sufferers.

The story began:

POLICE hope to build a database of Scotland’s dementia sufferers as they try to speed up their searches for vulnerable elderly people who go missing.

If this was anywhere else in the world, the phrase “Police hope to build a database” would have been the story itself.

But this is Scotland.

It continued:

Senior officers have long warned that finding confused pensioners who “wander off” is taking up an increasing amount of their time and resources. […]

Now the force is looking at keeping detailed records of such high-risk people – such as where they or their children went to school or where they lived as a child. […]

Experts are currently assessing a pilot project in Lothian and Borders division, including Edinburgh’s suburbs, where notes are kept on potential missing persons. [emphasis mine]

[…] The pilot project, which officers hope will get approval to be rolled out nationwide in the summer, is designed to help police pin down where an old person may have gone.Chief Inspector Lex Baillie, the officer in charge of missing persons, explained: “We are talking about things like where their children went to school, where their parents are buried or where their spouse worked.” It can take too long to get such information after a person is reported missing, sources suggest. […]

Police Scotland is currently looking at ways of reconfiguring its services to reflect the new reality that four out of five of its work is not related to crime, but to broader issues of vulnerability. Officers, however, recognise that finding people, including missing elderly people, involves many of the same detective skills as solving crime.

Let’s pause there.

What is happening here is that the police are seriously proposing that the families of people with dementia provide every possible detail, biographical fact, and anecdotal nugget that might provide clues to their loved one’s identity if they ever wander off. That information will include details about homes, schools, streets, parents, spouses, children, grandchildren, workplaces, and anything of note that they think a lost person with dementia might find themselves talking about if they are located safely.

Aside from the fact that this database would be an identity theft goldmine involving the personal information of millions of people, it is planned to go ahead despite the statement that “Police Scotland is currently looking at ways of reconfiguring its services to reflect the new reality that four out of five of its work is not related to crime.”

If that is a passive-aggressive way of saying “we are wasting our time on non-criminal issues,” why would you want to add mass data collection and retention on individuals who are neither involved in or suspected of criminal activity?

The Herald continued:

The force is currently working with other partners, such as social work departments, on two other pilot projects for missing people, including NHS patients and young people in care.

This work is being carried out in conjunction with the Scottish Government. A spokesman said: “We have been working in partnership with Police Scotland leading experts in the field of missing people to develop Scotland’s first national framework for missing people….As part of this approach, Police Scotland has worked with community partners to deliver three pilots – on looked-after children who go missing from residential or foster care; adults who go missing from care homes in Scotland; and patients who go missing from NHS care in Scotland.

“The pilot evaluations will inform our work in finalising the framework to ensure evidence-based best practice can be adopted across Scotland. We anticipate the framework being launched by the summer.”

We’ve got lots of “working in partnership”, which is Scottish for “job creation”, but what is missing is public consultation and objective scrutiny. This is all being done behind closed doors, by people who use language such as “finalising a framework to ensure evidence-based best practice” as code for “we know best and what we are up to is none of your business.”

Questions need to be asked

The Herald clearly disappeared up its own backside with this one, so here are the questions that responsible journalism would have asked:

  • Why do Police Scotland want to take the lead here? They come in only if and when the possibility happens (e.g. the person with dementia goes missing.) Why are they so keen to build a mass database?
  • Given Police Scotland’s appalling track record on data misuse, some of which I have personally experienced, what safeguards will be put in place?
  • Who will have access to that database?
  • As the database will be in the hands of the police, what other public records will it be linked to?
  • What rights will family members have over the inclusion of their personal information on a police database?
  • Is this voluntary or mandatory? The amount of “partnership working” suggests it may start as a voluntary pilot scheme but move on to mandatory.
  • Why is digital solutionism (e.g. build a database) being presented as the solution to a problem that has nothing to do with technology: people wander off from homes they should not be living in because there is not enough adequate sheltered and community care for the elderly?
  • Why is the Herald citing the deaths of three people with dementia – just three – as justification for a database potentially involving data records on millions of people?
  • What happens when a person with dementia is found alive and provides answers that are not in the database?
  • What happens when a person with dementia is found dead, as happens, and all that data collection was for naught?
  • What happens when mass data collection on people with dementia and their families does absolutely nothing to stop the problem from happening in the first place?

I’m glad that Open Rights Group are hiring a Scotland Director because this is the kind of thing that civil society needs to fight tooth and nail.

Until then, the usual cadre of hand-wringing do-gooders – the kind that phone you at home at 9 PM steaming drunk braying “you neeeed my help” – will, no doubt, come out in force in support of this idea, as will the Scottish Government-sponsored third sector executives who know how their mortgages are paid.

If they truly wish to press on with the idea, they should focus their energies on improving it  – keeping it out of the hands of the police, for one thing, and ensuring that the data is not linked to other public records, for another – rather than biting their tongues so they do not bite the hands that feed them.

But let’s look at the bigger picture here.

Only in Scotland would the creation of a police database holding thousands of personal details on people and their families, despite having no links to crime whatsoever, be created without public consultation, presented as a positive benefit to society, and then cheered on by our supplicant media.

As Scotland faces a second independence referendum it’s troubling to note that there are those who seem quite happy to aspire to building a nation where civil liberties are viewed as an obstacle to public order.

I am not one of them.

The idea that mass data collection and retention by the police is in the public interest because it could, somehow, predict and negate what might come out of the mouth of a wandering soul with dementia suggests that in Scotland, it is not the patients who have lost their minds.

Update 3 March

Today the Herald has published a follow-up piece titled “Police handle tide of “concern for wellbeing” about people with dementia and poor mental health“.

The piece stated that

Last week we revealed that missing persons officers were looking at keeping a data base of the habits and history of elderly people with dementia and other vulnerable people, including the mentally ill. (emphasis mine).

There was nothing said about mental health in the 23 March piece introducing the police database.

In a fortnight, public sector scope creep has roped in tens of thousands of additional subjects for the database.

Instead of spotting that inconsistency and challenging it, the Herald, for reasons known only to itself, has chosen to stick to the Scottish custom of “working in partnership” and not rock the boat.

So who is “mentally ill” enough to merit a place on the database? What conditions will get you put on it? What data sources will these records be pulled from? As with the dementia sufferers, will details of their personal histories, families, and relationships be added to the database “just in case?” What about consent? What about accuracy?

Where are the questions? Where are the people asking the questions? What’s the matter with you, Scotland?

A bit of personal history here. When I became a mother in 2006, someone somewhere in the system – I never knew who and I never knew why – recorded me as being “likely to suffer from postnatal depression”, despite me never having had any mental health issues then or now. How did I find out about this? My health visitor accidentally left my records next to the changing mat at the new mums’ social group. (If you stick a file folder with my name on it next to the wipes I’m generally going to look at it.) My health record stated I was “vulnerable” and “likely to struggle to cope” because I was “not from Scotland” and have “no family here.”

That – wiping my kid’s arse – was how I learned that my basic biographic details had been used to make a parochial judgement about me without my knowledge or consent.

Much to their seeming disappointment I was hunky dory about new motherhood, aided in large part by a baby so chilled out she practically wore sunglasses. Nevertheless, I spent three months being asked “Are you sure you are okay? Are you really sure?” by health visitors who were determined to believe that my answer of “really, I’m fine” was a cry for help because it was delivered in an accent that didn’t sound like theirs. Finally they got the point and sodded off to what I can only hope were mothers less fortunate than me who really did need the help.

We have a health and social care system that will make judgements about you without your knowledge, without your consent, and hell, without talking with you first. They will put you on lists. They will misclassify you as “vulnerable”. They will record you as having mental health issues even though you do not.

And now, apparently, they want to put you on a police database too.

Just in case.

The Author

I’m a UK tech policy wonk based in Glasgow. I work for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. The content and opinions on this site are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of any current or previous team.