Digital databases and political campaigning

Those addicted to the potential benefits of digital databases, identity cards and biometric passports, often berate me for my concerns about  the ethical implications of the introduction of such technologies (see for example, the comments of “James Bond” in response to my blog on the Indian census).

Today’s report in the Sunday Times that the ruling Labour party in Britain has sent personalised cards to cancer sufferers, warning them of the implications of a Conservative victory in the election on May 6th should serve as a salutary reminder.  This is how it was reported:

“LABOUR has become embroiled in a row about the use of personal data after sending cancer patients alarmist mailshots saying their lives could be at risk under a Conservative government. Cards addressed to sufferers by name warn that a Labour guarantee to see a cancer specialist within two weeks would be scrapped by the Tories. Labour claims the Conservatives would also do away with the right to be treated within 18 weeks. Cancer patients who received the personalised cards, sent with a message from a breast cancer survivor praising her treatment under Labour, said they were “disgusted and shocked”, and feared that the party may have had access to confidential health data. Labour sources deny that the party has used any confidential information. However, the sources admit that, in line with other political parties, it uses socio-demographic research that is commercially and publicly available. The postal campaign started last month before the general election was called. This is the first election in which parties have been able to use internet databases and digital printing to personalise their mailshots. Labour has sent out 250,000 “cancer” postcards, each addressed to an individual, asking: “Are the Tories a change you can afford?” Many of those receiving the cards have undergone cancer scans or treatment within the past five years.”

Of course there are real benefits of digital technologies, but we do need to reflect very carefully on who has access to personalised digital records, and on how such information is used.

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Filed under Ethics, ICT4D, Politics

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