Ross Clark Ross Clark

Information superhighwaymen

Ross Clark says Peeping Tom has replaced Big Brother as the chief threat to our freedom. We should stop filling in questionnaires

I occasionally worry that future scholars will be unable to write my biography because of my failure to keep a diary. But it seems I need not be too bothered. There came a moment last week when I realised there will be more than enough information for them to piece together my life in all its excruciatingly tedious detail.

That moment came when my wife, who has recently enrolled on a part-time, one-day-a-week course at a former polytechnic, showed me a two-page ‘medical centre database’ form which she had been ordered to complete before she could begin her studies. ‘Have you ever taken illegal drugs or solvents?’ it asked. ‘Have you ever been pregnant?’ ‘Do you use any form of contraception? If yes, which method?’ It went on to demand that she disclose the ‘average number of units of alcohol drunk per week’, broken down into ‘beer/lager/cider’, ‘wine’, ‘spirits’ and ‘alcopops’.

Had the university a campaign to name and shame anyone who drinks alcopops, I could perhaps sympathise. But no, a spokeswoman was deadly serious when I rang to ask her why this information was necessary. ‘We need it so that we can run a medical service for our students,’ she said. ‘It’s to fill the gap before the students’ full medical records arrive from their GPs. It’s all confidential.’ It is just conceivable my wife might collapse with alcopop-poisoning during the six hours a week she will spend in her classes, and the university’s doctor thus be aided in his diagnosis. But she could equally well collapse in Tesco, on a bus or even down at the Dog and Duck; is the pretext of emergency medical attention going to be used to make us divulge details of our personal habits every time we go shopping, get on public transport or go for a night out?

Nothing would surprise me in this age of fatuous information-gathering.

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