Sep 03 2008

When databases do more harm than good

Published by at 6:46 am under Government,Privacy

No one should be surprised that I find any governmental database to be suspect. All to often little or no thought is given to the information contained in the database and what it would mean if the wrong person got their hands on it, or if the right person got into sections they shouldn’t. The clients usually assume that the developers already thought of these problems and developers often think of it as someone elses problem. So no one should be surprised when the UK government is ready to release their ContactPoint database and suddenly someone raises the security and privacy flags.

ContactPoint is basically a database of ‘at risk’ children in the UK, children who’ve been abused or otherwise threatened. The information contained in the database can be used to help the children and let police know they have a family that might need special attention. But it also gives the police and social workers access to information that could make a family’s life hell if a person has a vendetta or just misinterperets the data. The fact that the database may also contain a lot of information about celebrity children is just icing on the cake and something that sensationalizes the story for the masses.

I’m just glad that someone is raising awareness of the security problems with this database before it goes live. This is much more serious information that something as trivial as a person’s credit; good, bad or otherwise, the information contained in ContactPoint can easily be used to ruin a life, whether it’s the child’s or the adult accused of abuse. And let’s not forget the fact that it’s a database organized by humans and therefore subject to errors and misinformation.

I’m all for information sharing in situations like this, but security has to be a primary concern, not something that’s bolted on after the fact. This isn’t a new problem or one that’s unique to ContactPoint, it’s a fundemental problem with developers and database development. As much as the UK government can be faulted for not including security in the requirements, the company that’s developing ContactPoint should know how sensitive the information is and treat it accordingly.

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5 responses so far

5 Responses to “When databases do more harm than good”

  1. Adamon 03 Sep 2008 at 10:34 am

    Hi there,
    interesting thoughts you have laid out, but your facts are fundamentally flawed.

    To me it seems you have read information from the web without researching any of the details.

    You will find that ContactPoint is not a database of “at risk” children but more a register of all children in England and Wales. If a child is at risk they are more likely to have their information shielded on ContactPoint, in a similar way to children of celebrities or high profile members of the public.

    You also talk about security being bolted on afterwards, again your facts are wrong. To be considered to be able to access the ContactPoint system (think very secure webbased telephone directory!) you need to be sponsored, you need to be Police vetted (enahanced CRB – think very detailed police search on your past history), you need to be vetted by your own organisation, you need to have fulfilled the mandatory training on the legal aspects of sharing information and you need to have carried out the ContactPoint training.
    It is only then that you will be provided with a token for access, this token is a 1-2-1 ratio, and is used to login to the system. Anything you do in the system is audited. Every Council has to have a dedicated team of people to keep an eye on the use of ContactPoint.

    Overall the security of the system is more than any other system ever attempted to be introduced into the English Councils.

    It is not 100% secure because no system ever is, but its a lot better than you realise.

    But – I am not an advocate of the ContactPoint and am deeply concerned over the misuse of the data, which IMHO will come from the Centralisation of the data rather than rouge elements accessing individual elements.

    I just thought that you would be happier knowing the facts..



  2. Martinon 03 Sep 2008 at 10:53 am


    Thanks for the feedback. Today is, as a matter of face, the first time I’d heard of ContactPoint, and I am guilty of only reading the one article before forming my opinions. So thanks for letting me know that there’s a lot more going on here and that the original article might be a little one sided.

    The thought of this being a database containing information on all children in England and Wales scares me even more than the thought of this being about at risk children. I cringe at the thought of people being educated into believing that having the government track them like this from an early age for no other reason than something might be useful at some point. People need to realize that just collecting the data for the sake of having it is dangerous. Very dangerous. And despite general wisdom, the danger is much greater from someone internal abusing the system than from an external attacker.

    I could rant all day on the dangers of governmental collection of data. Instead, let me thank you again for clearing up some of my misconceptions. I don’t know if I’m happier knowing the facts, but I’m definitely better educated for it.


  3. Adamon 03 Sep 2008 at 12:54 pm

    Hi Martin,
    not a problem, and I am glad you took it in the way I hoped you would.

    My concerns are very similar to yours, and you really have to stand back and ask why is there a need for collection of data into central repositories?

    Within the context of ContactPoint the sole aim was to try and improve information sharing between professionals. It came about after a small girl was murdered in London even though she was known to lots of Social Services. When the report into the actions of her death where made public it showed that nobody knew who else had dealings with her. ContactPoint prime reason for being is to show who else is dealing with a child. On paper its a really good idea.

    What is a my bug bear is the danger of placing the data into the hands of a Government that has a terrible reputation of data security.

    If I had a database that had information about kids and the data was compromised in some way, sure it would be a big deal, but in the big scheme of things its a small database.

    If I then combine that with lots of other databases it near enough creates it’s own gravity, of the wrong type…. and for all the wrong reasons.

    Social engineering as it is means there will be a breach of security with this database its just a question of time.

    Its a case of “the right reasons” but too much at stake. IMHO

    They should take this model and reduce it in scale to combine local data and share between neighbours.

    Any way – a good debate me thinks..



  4. Mr Won 04 Sep 2008 at 2:07 am

    Good to see Adam spending time furnishing you with some detailed background. You said

    ‘Thanks for the feedback. Today is, as a matter of fact, the first time I’d heard of ContactPoint, and I am guilty of only reading the one article before forming my opinions.”

    I’m just wondering if all your blogging is predicated on opinions formed ont he basis of reading one newspaper article, when there is a huge volume of material about the question being discussed freely available on the web.

  5. Martinon 04 Sep 2008 at 4:07 am

    No, most of my opinions are based on decades of experience in the real world. But sometimes I just don’t have the time to do proper research on a subject, so I just run with what I have. That’s one of the reason’s I’m a blogger, not a journalist. Seriously, this is the blogosphere, what else do you expect? At least I’m willing to admit my errors, which is a lot more than you can say about many bloggers. Maybe if I didn’t have a day job, a wife and two kids, as well as the blog and a podcast, I’d have the time to spend more than 15-30 minutes on a post. But that’s not a luxury I have.

    Have a great day.


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