Civil Liberties

Watching the Kids

Surveillance in the U.K.


Children in the United Kingdom will soon have a new reason to eat their vegetables: The government is watching.

In June child care practitioners and child protection experts gathered at the London School of Economics to voice concern about the Children Act 2004, one of the biggest intrusions into parental rights in U.K. history. The act, passed following the abuse and death of an 8-year-old girl, mandates a £224 million interagency database that will track the development of Britain's 12 million children.

Meant to be fully operational in two years, the system will combine existing databases to create a unified file on each person under 18. Government workers, such as teachers, social workers, and law enforcement officials, will be required to report "information as to the existence of any cause for concern" and log their comments in the corresponding file.

What might be "cause for concern"? Given the broad language of the bill, it's hard to say. But critics cite a government requirement that kids get at least "five fruits and vegetables" every day as evidence of the program's broad reach.

The June conference in London is among the first stirrings of opposition to the database, which some child care experts say will hinder rather than help efforts to identify those severe cases that merit government intervention. As Jonathan Bamford, assistant commissioner at the Information Commissioner's Office, asked the London Telegraph, "When you are looking for a needle in a haystack, is it necessary to keep building bigger haystacks?"