Another day, another public sector IT debacle, this time a database intended to protect children which could in fact endanger them!

The report, 'Children's Databases: Safety and Privacy', examined the databases being built to collate information on children in education, youth justice, health, social work and elsewhere. Among the databases included were Information Sharing Index, due to be introduced by 2008, the National Pupil Database, and "ASSET", a database which contains profiles of young offenders.

But a study carried out for the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has warned that the details held on databases need to be "looked at carefully" after finding examples of what it calls a "cavalier interpretation" of data protection and privacy. These included police sharing data on a nine-month-old baby without the parents' consent using the excuse of "crime prevention".

The report said one concern was so-called "e-discrimination" where police attention was more likely simply because of a child's records in areas such as education and health. "This raises serious data protection concerns relating to the appropriateness of collecting, processing and retaining the data," the report said.

"Just because technology means that things can be done with personal information, it does not always follow that they should be done," warned ICO assistant commissioner Jonathan Bamford. "Public trust and confidence will be lost if there is excessive unwarranted intrusion into family life or if some of the issues that have been identified actually materialise."

The ICO is also considering whether to provide more information - such as guidance for young people aged 12-18 on consent issues. "It is important to emphasise that there is a sharp distinction between child protection and child welfare," said Bamford. "Data protection should never be used as an excuse for failure to protect a child from a real risk of harm."

But a Department for Education and Skills (DfES) spokesman criticised the report itself. "We have some serious reservations about this report's objectivity and evidence base,” he said. "The support, protection and safeguarding of children is our top priority but in fulfilling it, we are conscious
of the need to respect personal privacy.”

The report also suggests that the money being spent on new IT systems might be better diverted elsewhere and could mean that child protection will receive less attention.