The Government’s ContactPoint database - designed to keep tabs on children at risk of social exclusion - is in trouble again, coming under fire on two separate fronts.
First is the vexed issue of “shielding”, identified as a source of concern by a recent article in the Guardian. More directly, the chairman of the Foundation for Information Policy Research, Professor Ross Anderson, believes that bureaucratic muddle and buck-passing on this issue will put thousands of children at risk from paedophiles, celebrity stalkers and abusive parents.
There is no quick fix, as the source of the problem lies in the very concept of ContactPoint. Put large amounts of personal data on every child in the country in one place, and you will have a resource of great usefulness to Police, social workers and other childcare professionals - or alternatively, you have created a paedophile’s treasure trove.
Over 330,000 people will have access to it, and, according to Baroness Miller, Lords Home Affairs Spokesperson for the Lib Dems: “Given the Government’s record on handling data, data loss, data leaks and data misuse, the whole concept of ContactPoint needs to be reviewed."
Hence the idea of “shielding”. This is a process whereby details of especially vulnerable children are blocked off from ordinary user access – and a special order would be required to unblock them. It is understood that shielding has already been put in place for the children of MPs.
For everyone else, the burden will fall on Local Authorities, who are simply not up to the task – not because they are particularly inept, but because they are just not designed for it.
The Department of Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) rather helpfully explains that “there are 150 Local Authorities who will all need to shield records locally. They are fully aware of their responsibilities to shield records, and are being supported in this work by the Department”.
Professor Anderson is rather sceptical of their ability to do this.“If a Local Council has a family living in their area who are members of a Witness Protection scheme – they won’t know. If they have children in the area who are sons and daughters of a well-known pop star - they won’t know.”
“This is just an exercise in blame management - when it all goes pear-shaped, Local Government is going to carry the can – even though they are being given an impossible task.”
This is backed up by Terri Dowty of Action on Rights for Children. She believes government and local authorities need to be asking parents who think their children may need shielding to get in touch now: “Otherwise, this will put thousands of children and families at harm of being tracked down by violent ex-spouses and abusive parents – not to mention criminals, stalkers and paedophiles. There are, quite simply, children who must never be found.”
Unfortunately for the DCSF, every solution seems to generate yet more difficulties. But if parental concerns over access to the data are even slightly recognised, it will open up an immense can of Data Protection worms.
As does “shielding”. Once Local Authorities have identified who needs to be shielded, they need to get this data into the DCSF system. Helpfully, the DCSF today confirmed that “ContactPoint will not be available to practitioners until this work is complete”. However, at the very least, this means something like 150 sets of the most sensitive data imaginable whizzing around the country on a variety of magnetic media.
Do we honestly believe not one of these will go missing? Er, no. Have the DCSF issued detailed security guidelines to Councils wishing to forward these details (including useful stuff like recommended encryption, mode of delivery etc). As far as we are aware, no.
So look forward to ContactPoint being delayed indefinitely while the Sys Ops try to find the missing 150th shielding list.
Meanwhile, we promised a second front, and here it is! Fresh from a Youth Panel meeting on this very subject, Baroness Miller took time out to speak to El Reg on the subject. She is not happy – and is likely to be following this issue like a hawk in the months to come.
“People wanting information on children for malign purposes will now find virtually everything in one place," she told us. “However, the limited uses originally envisaged to make information sharing between agencies for the benefit of children have now been far exceeded.
“The police want to access it for crime prevention which means that any young person on the database is effectively living in a police state where everything about their lives is on record for police use.
“Young people will no longer be able to rely on information given in confidence to agencies dealing with sensitive issues remaining confidential. This will ruin the relationships of trust between them and many of the critical workers that can help them through turbulent adolescent years.
She concluded, bluntly: “ContactPoint could well be a disaster on several fronts.”