I was discussing, with a friend, Albert Einstein's views on Atomic Warfare, and his guilt about his role in its development, as expressed in his private letters. He surprised me somewhat by asking me if anyone responsible for the development of relational databases felt any guilt or remorse about the opportunities for abuse of the power that these databases afford. It seemed a bit harsh, I thought, to compare Information Technology with weapons of mass destruction, but then maybe he has a point…
Governments, especially totalitarian governments, know that knowledge is power. A classic, well-documented example is the Stasi, modelled on the Soviet MGB, which was probably the most effective and repressive intelligence system ever devised. With modern data searching techniques, the power this knowledge yields is now greater than ever.
Databases are a focus for the steady erosion of civil liberties. In the UK, the current government have extended their powers to access personal information on several occasions. The Coroners and Justice Bill, for example, empowers the government to obtain and share information with local councils, the DVLA, benefits offices and HM Revenue and Customs. Whilst one can argue that those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear, the reality isn't that simple. Governments aren't always as benign as they seem, and the individual has much to fear from one that knows a great deal about you and has lost its moral compass. What if it is a hostile government or agency that has your records? Incorrect information can, and does, get into a database through both carelessness and malice. The potential for abuse for anyone who has your medical records is frightening.
Those of us who are responsible for preventing abuse of the data in our databases can refine our security as far as possible, but we are helpless in the face of a growing willingness of users, with legitimate access to information, to give it out in response to a bribe. The theft of government information by criminal organisations has reached epidemic proportions.
Should we, as the people who can see most clearly the real power, and potential failings, of relational databases be working more closely with civil liberties organisations to assist them in understanding the risks? Should we worry, or isn't it our problem?