Digital data never dies.

Are we teaching young people to understand and use the data-rich environment in which they will live? Clever people who grasp the real meaning of ‘digital’ and the ability of computers to collect and manipulate data will use their skills to manipulate people. We are perhaps now aware of this on social media, though politicians have yet to grasp the enormity of the problem. But it happens in lots of small ways, every time you do an online search or use your store reward card. When Tesco first introduced their reward card in the early 1990s one of their executives described it as like trying to drink from a fire-hydrant. They were drowning in data, knew it was very valuable but had not yet worked out how to extract the value and use it. It didn't take them long.

Are we preparing young people for this or is the world-changing impact of computer databases going unrecognised in the school curriculum?

A database is just a tool for storing and looking up information isn’t it? No – it’s a lot more than that because the existence of computer databases radically changes the relationship between human beings and data. Relationship is the key word here. It is in the relationships between data that the value and frightening potential exists. Every time you buy something on Amazon and get the 'people who bought this also bought ?????' screen, you are looking at instant data-mining to persuade you to buy more.

In problem solving, the question used to be “what data is available to help us answer the question”. With increasingly huge amounts of data now available and easily copied because it is digital data, the question is becoming much more “what data is going to be most relevant to getting the most insightful answer to the question”.

This might sound like a very philosophical argument but it is really a completely different way of thinking. And this involves not just databases themselves, but the computer-based tools used to acquire data, such as data-loggers, online surveys and image analysis. It also involves the ability to generate new data by relating different sets of data that can be linked through a common field. From the contacts Acorn had with Tesco we learnt that a supermarket chain can predict very precisely what revenue a new store will produce by linking a database of population socio-economic data in geographical areas, with a database of local transport and their own database of their different stores and customer profiles.

There are also the issues behind identity theft. The question here is not whether criminals can obtain your personal data. The question to worry about is what the criminals can do with your personal data. There are already mounds of personal data circulating on the black web from the numerous data leaks from companies and government departments. An identity thief may collect huge sets of personal data from many different sources and cross relate them. If they find the same name and date of birth in several data-sets, there is a strong possibility that this is the same person. Whereas each data-set on its own may contain only a few pieces of personal information, by combining them they can build a very convincing knowledge of an individual. Only a short while ago I needed to change my address with my credit-card company. It wasn't straightforward for some reason and I was asked to go through some additional security questions. One of the questions they asked me must have been derived from cross-relating data. I was asked whether I had ever lived in the same house as a person called Graham. Where on earth did they get that from? They obviously had a full list of my previous addresses, they knew that at least one of those was a multi-occupancy dwelling at the dates I lived there, and they had cross-related that address to records of other people to find out who else lived there.

Identity thieves will surely in time catch up with the techniques these good guys are using and will manage to have similar databases to hand to ply their nasty trade.

The question for educators is where this aspect of digital is covered in the curriculum. It needs to be much more that just a couple of lessons on managing your digital identity.