Free Our Data: the blog

A Guardian Technology campaign for free public access to data about the UK and its citizens

A “fetishistic” attitude to privacy is holding back crime mapping, says Heather Brooke

You may have heard of Heather Brooke: she’s one of the campaigners who got MPs’ expenses and spending put into the public eye through the Freedom of Information Act and a great deal of determination.

Now she’s written a terrific article for The Times about crime mapping, and why it’s needed:

The police in Britain, however, feel they “own” crime data and the public have no right to know what is happening. Yet access to criminal incident data is vital, as it allows the public to judge the effectiveness of the police and crime policies. In a void of ignorance, a politician or police chief can claim anything he likes about crime: that binge drinking is endemic or under control, that muggings are increasing or falling, that policing is working or failing.

The police can also hide their failings. Northumbria police claimed that only three crimes of note had occurred one weekend in May, yet a freedom of information request revealed that, in fact, there were more than 1,000 incidents, 161 of them violent.

As she points out…

Shamefully, the Information Commissioner has objected to the plan of Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, to allow people to know what crime happens in their street, arguing that it would breach the privacy of the victims of crime. But the Data Protection Act does not prohibit personal information being disclosed. Its purpose is to ensure that such disclosure is for a legitimate purpose.

Yet again a policy that would be of great public benefit is being blocked by an unthinking, fetishistic attitude towards privacy. A balance can easily be struck between the privacy of those reporting crimes and the overall safety of citizens. The only people made safer by the current policy of wilfully enforced ignorance are poorly performing police chiefs.

That “fetishistic” sums it up perfectly. Just as “health and safety” has become the refrain for anyone trying to stop someone else doing something in the physical world, so “privacy” has become something that is used to block anything that might disrupt the status quo.

But disrupting the status quo is what Brooke, and indeed the Free Our Data campaign, are all about. It’s difficult, changing peoples’ mindsets: but if you keep pointing out that things are wrong about how it’s being done now, eventually you set up enough cognitive dissonance that something does happen. Brooke has done a huge amount to that end with MPs’ expenses (even though some are now trying to squeeze around it). We find common cause on data like this. The struggle continues.

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