The database state


dataConnectivity is a company which has just launched a new mobile phone directory service. They claim to have 16m of mobile phone numbers in their database. They won't give them out to you, but you call 118800 or go onto their website and say who you want to call, and for £1 they will send that person a text asking if they'll take your call.

The interesting question is where Connectivity laid its hands on 16m of our numbers. It's coy, but the answer is market research companies, online businesses that we buy things from, and brokers who sell lists of numbers.

Actually, I'll find it quite useful to be able to look up people's mobile numbers. But grasping the obvious benefits is how we lose our liberties. Most people want more CCTV, for example, because they think it prevents crime. But when you have millions of them tracking your every move, what it starts to prevent is free movement. And the worrying thing about this 118800 initiative is just how easily new databases of our information can be compiled. Click a mouse, text a friend, use your credit cards, sign up for a storecard, pay your car tax or buy a TV licence, walk in the street under the gaze of CCTV, apply for social benefits, forget to tick the box on that says 'we'd like to share your information with...' and your ID cat is out of the bag, floating around between – well, who knows who?

That's why the proposed National Identity Register is so dangerous. And the NHS patient records system too. Tens of millions of our records, all accessible to whichever of 400,000 civil servants happens to have the right security code. The late lamented Jacqui Smith wanted to keep a note of all our email and phone chats, while the lamentable Jack Straw wanted to share all our information between government departments. They both had to publicly backtrack. But I'm under no illusion that these things are going to happen, or are happening, anyway.