When the UK government isn't losing its databases, it's plotting to create new ones of unprecedented scale and reach. Indeed, the word ‘database' might turn out to be the term that defines its whole period in office.

It started in 2004 with proposals for a national ID card scheme to makes machine-readable passports look like museum pieces, building on various pieces of legislation that had since 1997 widened the collecting scope of the UK national DNA database used by police to fight crime.

This week came confirmation from Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, of plans to create a massive database of every phone number dialled, ever website visited, and every email address contacted, by everyone in the country.

What would not be in this new database is the content of these communications, a feat of storage beyond even governments for now, though it's hard to rule that out for the future once the basic infrastructure is in place.

The next step? Tie them together with the UK's huge surveillance camera network and make DNA profiling a necessary element of biometric passports. This would give the UK government a level of informational power beyond that found in even the most totalitarian of today's states.

What makes this extraordinary is that nobody in the UK government actually wants to create such a state. They propose these ideas in good faith, sure in their conviction that checks and balances are in place, that the databases themselves would not be compromised, and that it is all necessary to fight the evils of terrorism and organised crime.

It's disquieting that the UK could be the template from which other states develop their own plans. They might not admit it, but there are plenty of people in the free and non-free world beyond the UK who are watching what happens with great interest.

The overbearing older sibling of Orwellian nightmare this is not because his totalitarians wouldn't have wasted time telling people what they were about to do. Power, and the fear it illicits, should always remain partly latent and undefined the better to stop people knowing what to try to topple.

But it seems to me the greatest failure of these databases is that they will work, but only in the wrong ways. They will spread their negative power over the vast majority of innocents while failing to counter the ability of the determined criminal to circumvent them.

The government knows as much when it admits it has no easy way through the minefield of encrypted communications such as Skype, for instance. And Skype is only one of the many ways that communications can be hidden or scrambled.

The answer is to accept that the police need enhanced powers to monitor communications in a targeted way but not by building databases of information on the whole population and creating a new layer of weakness.