A national personnel database? Don’t make me laugh!

I have been  enjoying the new BBC drama The Last Enemy. It is set in a hypothetical Britain of the near future, in which the surveillance state has awesome power over citizen’s lives. Every move is logged on all-powerful systems and the state knows just about everything about everybody. It’s a scary scenario, as Peter Tatchell points out in his commentary on the series in today’s Guardian.

But an incident in last night’s episode showed that we are still some way from the sophisticated systems portrayed in The Last Enemy. The hero, Stephen Ezard , hacked into a drug company’s employee database and was able to retrieve a wealth of information on everyone who worked for the organisation. At this point, any HR people watching must have been laughing cynically and shouting “what a load of crap”. 

Most organisations struggle to provide an accurate headcount from their HR systems. Even if they have the right number of people on the system, many are often in the wrong departments and locations. The idea that photographs, qualifications and minute details of their work and employment history would be available is a flight of fancy.

HR systems are a pain to set up and even more of a pain to keep up-to-date. The government’s identity card database would, essentially, be a massive nationwide HR database, containing the personal records for everyone in the country. Just as companies struggle to keep track of employee moves and job changes, so the state would have the same problems in tracking its citizens. In theory, the technology is available to create such databases but in practice, the implementation of them is much more difficult.

It will be a long time before companies or the government have such clever and comprehensive systems. Like all organisations, the government claims to be able to deliver more than it can. Given its record on managing large scale IT projects, I wonder whether it has the capability to set up an identity card database.

Peter Tatchell thinks that the future glimpsed in this BBC series is nearer than we think. I’m less pessimistic. In all probability, the dystopia of The Last Enemy is still some way off.

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