Governments have been collecting data on their citizens almost from the first moment that they came into being. Data was needed to determine what was out there that could be extracted: The Egyptian Pharaohs conducted a census to find out the scale of the available labor force to build the pyramids, and in the Roman Empire, the five-yearly census was all about finding out who was available for military service and what wealth existed to be taxed. But governments have also used data to find out what people needed: The ancient Babylonians collected data from their citizens nearly 6,000 years ago in order to understand how much food was required to feed their population, and the Egyptian census was also used to work out how to divide the land after the flooding of the Nile.
As the activities of governments have become more complex, and people’s expectations have grown, more and more data has been collected. Early censuses just recorded numbers of people, with basic information about wealth and maybe occupation. It’s all more complicated now—the most recent U.K. census, held in 2011, had 56 different questions. And that’s not even including data collected by the health service, the education department or the myriad other public and private bodies who collect and use information about individuals.
A lot is known about some people, and that information is used by governments and other institutions to design, implement and evaluate policy on their behalf. But very little is known about others—and the decisions that are made for and about them are likely to be much worse as a result.