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Brits dubious of UK data sharing plans

They don't have all the information

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A week before the complete findings are due to be published, more details of the Citizens Forum's fluctuating views have been revealed by Ipsos MORI, the polling firm, and the Cabinet Office.

In February, participants in the forum were asked what they thought of the government sharing data between departments in order to better deliver public services. Seventy per cent voted in favour, Ben Page, chairman of the Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, told The Register.

After the forum, participants took home sheets asking them to consider the pros and cons of government data sharing, as well as other policy matters.

To provoke their thinking, the sheets gave specific examples of how data sharing was beneficial. But they made only passing reference to the fact that some people were "concerned" about the idea, while it made others "worry about civil liberties". Supporting information consisted of web addresses to a BBC article about the Citizen Forum that touched on some of the pros and cons of data sharing, and a 2003 survey that found that, having considered them in more detail, 60 per cent of people were concerned about the idea.

Citizens were also referred to the government's Information Sharing Vision Statement, which described in detail why information sharing was a good idea.

The sheets did not refer to material that opposed the government's data sharing plans.

At the Citizen Fourm's big day at Number 10 on 3 March, policy issues, including data sharing, were again debated. Polled again by MORI on what they thought of data sharing, support for the idea dropped to 57 per cent.

"As they debated it they became more anxious," Page said.

MORI decided to go one step further and refined its question, posing it to the citizens a third time, this time adding the proviso that all their reservations about data sharing would be magically wiped away.

Page said citizens were "reassured" and, asked what they thought of government data sharing that was done with "strict controls" on who had access to the data and how it was used, 79 per cent were in favour.

However, it is not certain how well citizens will be protected from government information sharing. The government announced in September that its policy review would consider how the Data Protection Act, which is designed in part to prevent people becoming victims of official information sharing, might be watered down to remove "barriers" to its information sharing plans.

But the validity of the review, being carried out by the Department of Constitutional Affairs, (DCA) has been questioned by the Office of the Information Commissioner (ICO), according to documentation seen by The Register.

The ICO, whose powers would be curtailed if the law was watered down, told the DCA that its review was redundant because the Data Protection Act already allowed the government to share data, as long as it respected the rights of ordinary citizens.

What would the Citizen's Forum have made of data sharing if they had been made more aware of the arguments against the idea, or told why the DCA suspected government data sharing might require the peeling back of laws designed to protect their liberties?

Unlike the Prime Minister, the DCA has not conducted its part of the policy review with the public. It has refused since September to discuss its deliberations, and did so again this week.

Quite how the data sharing question was presented to the Citizens will not be known until the complete findings are published next week. Page, however, said MORI would not publish a transcript.

A spokeswoman for the Cabinet Office who attended the forum could relate one example that was used to illustrate to the citizens how data sharing might be handled by the government. They were told how information shared between a health visitor and a hospital was "potentially life-saving".

She could not remember if they were given an example that might illustrate equally well how data sharing might not be a good idea.

Pierce was clearer about what had and had not been said: "We gave people more scenarios to think about in terms of those specific things - for example, health care providers should share information to provide a better service.

"We didn't give a negative example, but...people were encouraged to think of their own advantages and disadvantages," she added.

The citizens, meanwhile, were full of scepticism they had been fed by the media: "They'd said they'd never been made aware from the media that data [protection law] means that health visitors and inspectors cannot share information," said the Cabinet Office spokeswoman, who was an observer at the event. They were, apparently, angry that the press had not given them the full picture. ®

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