Database States

Essay by Sanjana Varghese: “In early 2007, a package sent from the north of England to the National Audit Office (NAO) in London went missing. In it were two discs containing the personal records of twenty-five million people—including their addresses, birthdays, and national insurance numbers, which are required to work in the UK—that the NAO intended to use for an “independent survey” of the child benefits database to check for supposed fraud. Instead, that information was never recovered, a national scandal ensued, and the junior official who mailed the package was fired.

The UK, as it turns out, is not particularly adept at securing its data. In 2009, a group of British academics released a report calling the UK a “database state,” citing the existence of forty-six leaky databases that were poorly constructed and badly maintained. Databases that they examined ranged from one on childhood obesity rates (which recorded the height and weight measurements of every school pupil in the UK between the ages of five and eleven) to IDENT1, a police database containing the fingerprints of all known offenders. “In too many cases,” the researchers wrote, “the public are neither served nor protected by the increasingly complex and intrusive holdings of personal information, invading every aspect of our lives.”

In the years since, databases in the UK—and elsewhere—have only proliferated; increasingly manufactured and maintained by a nexus of private actors and state agencies, they are generated by and produce more and more information streams that inevitably have a material effect on the populations they’re used by and against. More than just a neutral method of storing information, databases shape and reshape the world around us; they aid and abet the state and private industry in matters of surveillance, police violence, environmental destruction, border enforcement, and more…(More)”.