Analysis The Tories were big fans - in opposition - of labelling the then-Labour government a "database state" as it lumbered from one ID card disaster to another. But now that the Conservative Party is heading towards the mid-term point of its coalition with the Lib Dems, the notion of hoarding ever-more information about British citizens is alive and well - in the form of the under-reported opening up of the National Pupil Database.
Education Secretary Michael Gove told Parliament on Tuesday that his department had opened up a public consultation on plans, in his words, "to share extracts of data held in the National Pupil Database for a wider range of purposes than currently possible in order to maximise the value of this rich dataset."
Chillingly, one such usage cited would involve creating a private sector market that would be able to offer "innovative tools and services which present anonymised versions of the data".
What this means in practice is that sensitive information held about children across Blighty could soon be in the hands of marketeers who are looking to extend their data-scraping exercises beyond the likes of Facebook, Google and other well-known free-content ad networks. It would now seem that even a child's school life including exam results, attendance, teacher assessments and even characteristics could soon be scrutinised in the same way - that is if Gove's proposals get the go-ahead.
He told MPs:
We have already significantly expanded the content of school performance tables for primary and secondary schools and were commended in the National Audit Office report 'Implementing Transparency' (April 2012) for opening up access to our data. Recently, we have also improved the application arrangements for requesting access to data from the National Pupil Database under our existing regulations for those who need pupil level data for research purposes.
However, we are aware that the existing Prescribed Persons Regulations may prevent some potentially beneficial uses of the data by third-party organisations, as use is currently restricted to 'research into educational achievement'. For example, we have had to reject requests to use the data for analysis on sexual exploitation, the impact on the environment of school transport, and demographic modelling, all of which seem to be legitimate and fruitful areas for further research.
A revision to the regulation could come as early as spring next year, Gove told the House. He stressed that confidentiality and security would not be ignored if such a legislative overhaul does take place. But he did go on to say that "existing arrangements" relating to access to pupil data would be extended to meet many more requests.
The Cabinet minister did not name the types of organisations that would be eligible to get their hands on the information, but he did make obvious points about their need to comply with the Data Protection Act and to demonstrate that appropriate security was in place.
One might have expected that such data would first be cleared of any pupil ID prior to be passed on to the private sector for its marketing purposes. Not so, according to Gove's statement to Parliament yesterday. Here's the interesting bit: it would appear that these unnamed third parties would be the ones anonymising the data on behalf of the DfE and not the other way round, as Gove stated:
"Any reports, statistical tables, or other products published or released, would need to fully protect the identity of individuals."
Alarm bells ought to be ringing among civil liberties' campaigners by now. ®