Research, analysis, evaluation

The Big Bad Database

One of the more important Canadian news stories of the past week was the revelation that a ministry of the federal government was maintaining a huge database of information about Canadian citizens up to 2,000 pieces of information per citizen. Two themes have stood out in the commentary. The first is the sensible question of just what the government is allowed to do with this information. The second, though, is the less sensible idea that the database is somehow more dangerous because it is big.

The size of the database is unrelated to the danger it poses. If you combine ten huge databases into one enormous one, no catalytic reaction occurs which makes the new database ten times more dangerous. In fact, the new database may be so unwieldy that it poses less threat than the smaller databases it replaces.

The chief danger of information always lies in what people do with it. First, they can release information that should not be released, either because it is erroneous or because it should be private, and much of the comment of the past week has focussed on this question. Obviously, this danger is unrelated to the size of the database small databases can contain erroneous or private information, too.

Another danger, as other articles on this site have attempted to demonstrate, is that the information in the database may not be properly analyzed. Conclusions may be drawn from the information which are not justified, and the reason that false conclusions are often drawn is a failure to analyze the data effectively. If social and economic policy are based on incorrect conclusions sloppily drawn from this huge database of Ottawa's, then that will be a catastrophe. It would still be a catastrophe, though, if the database were tiny.

I don't see that it makes much difference to me if the government keeps my name, my Social Insurance Number, and a mass of other information about me in one database or in one hundred. The important consideration is what is done with the information, and as the discussion of the last week has shown, there may be far too few controls on that.

The Big Bad Database © 2000, John FitzGerald
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