In the UK, there have been two recent cases where lives might have been saved if certain information had been shared between certain organizations. The failure to maintain and communicate this information has been blamed on the Data Protection Act, although these particular cases may have been subject to excessively cautious interpretations of the Act.
Firstly, a police force failed to maintain and communicate information about a young man seeking employment as a school caretaker, who had been subject to a series of serious allegations of sexual misconduct. The man has now been convicted of the horrific murder of two girls at the school.
Secondly, a gas supplier failed to notify social services when disconnecting the gas supply of an elderly couple. The couple were later found dead.
Let’s take the second case. It has been suggested that the DPA might have permitted the gas company to pass information to social services if the couple were known to be at special risk, or already clients of social services. But this solution simply doesn’t work without a greater breach of privacy – it implies that the gas company already has access to some information about the couple, to justify treating them differently.
Once upon a time, utility companies were either in public ownership, or were run by private bureaucracies whose operational ethos was broadly similar to the civil service. Many of our expectations of “joined-up service” – where police and schools and social services and gas companies share vital information in the public interest – overlook the fact that we no longer live in this world, but a world of competitive commercial self-interest, outsourced operations and off-shore processing. Perhaps some companies behave honourably with the information they hold – but we can no longer take this for granted.
This means we need to innovate new mechanisms – social/institutional as well as technical ones – to manage information sharing between separate organizations, in a way that delivers the highest possible standards of joined-up services while respecting privacy and other social policies.