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Surveying anonymity and the public good

Our survey shows researchers and the public disagree

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail have been stirring up shock and horror at the idea that the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) are planning to siphon off data from sources that include "visits to A&E departments, government surveys and the reporting of crimes to police" and place it on a "huge 'Lifestyle Database'".

Well: not quite. As the Mail later admits, "it will not be possible to identify individuals from the information on the database": but even that probably over-states the case. The database in question is an aggregated data system that El Reg was alerted to some months back.

We investigated it then and found it was little more than an online query tool designed to support the EHRC’s Equality Measurement Framework. The tool would allow researchers to pull down statistics on 10 domains of equality – such as life, health, productive activities, education, employment, etc. – broken down by group.

Although the Mail focusses on the fact that the database will attempt to hold data on sexual orientation and identity, a spokesman for the project told El Reg today that general reluctance to answer questions about sexuality meant that this tool would be most useful in respect of disability, gender and age.

So bearing in mind the caveats about identifiability expressed above, this base will contain no individual records and it is unlikely that any individual will be identifiable through it: however, data will be collected without direct consent.

In the end, there is no scandal here: just a mindset on the part of some officials that if the end is for the public good, then it doesn’t matter if the rules around data collection get slightly bent. That would appear to be joined, at the lower levels of government, by a poor understanding of the letter of the law when it comes to Data Protection. The same departments that are so obstructive when it comes to dishing out information are rather less well informed as to the scope of the Act when it comes to identifiability.

According to the Tories, they intend to shake up the lazy assumptions that public services are entitled to use our data just because they can, and require all such uses in future to be tested according to necessity. Whether anything will change – or whether the researchers will continue to win the day - remains to be seen. ®

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