Monday, 14 July 2008

criminal records checks for millions - vulnerability and precaution

The Register, Analysis - Criminal Record Checks could hit over 14 million people

An interesting article, which in summary suggests that very high numbers of people could have criminal record checks conducted on them due to a combination of back-covering, precaution and decentralisation. There is guidance on where checks are appropriate, but these are expansive, but also vague, leading to many employers to conduct checks in case they have to, and as an edge of competion in the market that does not. There is a definite theme of governmentality about it, where decisions are made at lower levels that add up to a high degree of surveillance activity, because of an aversion to risk - or being held responsible for the occurance of a negative event (and what is more negative than risk to childen - examples - James Bulger to Madeline McCann)

Some material from my thesis is relevant to this:

Described by Brubaker and Cooper as a ‘common sense’ use of identity[1], consistency of identity over time, space, and social sphere is required by surveillance discourse in order for identity to carry risk information and act as a ‘risk-signifier’. This permanence of identity arises from the reliance upon biographic identities and the ease of storage and retrieval of digital information. It problematises any legitimate attempt to change identity, for example, changing sex, fleeing persecution, escaping from previous experiences such as a criminal record or bad debts. Even state attempts to create new identities (for example witness protection schemes or undercover policing) will experience this difficulty due to the proliferation of identity data in the private sector.

This raises questions as to when information included as part of an identity should be discarded by data processors. At what point does information become irrelevant for risk analysis and decision making? Does a criminal conviction in an individual’s youth signal that they deserve employment less than somebody without?

A decreasing level of institutional ‘forgiveness’ can be anticipated as institutional memories expand. In previous eras, an individual could escape from a past mistake by moving to a new city, or waiting for a period of time. With searchable databases, individuals are linked to less salubrious elements of their identities for longer time spans. This has implications for anybody considering public life, as they are liable to have any negatively perceived recorded events from their life revealed. If identity is discursively understood as consistent over time, then what happens when (counter to this construction) identity changes in some way? For example, if a recording error is made, data is lost or corrupted, or malicious hackers change biographical details.

The combination of more and more people being subject to criminal background checks combined with a presumption of database accuracy, and a decreasing level of institutional 'forgetfullness' could be potentially problematic.

I'd be interested in knowing what the outputs of CRB checks are - is it full details, or a 'safe/unsafe' determination by the bureau? the CRB website wasn't extremely helpful


[1] Brubaker & Cooper, 2000, p.10


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