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Big Data megaslurp 'to save UK.gov £30 BILLION pa', raves thinktank

Gov should be more like FaceGooglezon! <wipes foam>

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Politicians should use their own expectations of privacy to judge how far the government should go when digging through databases and marrying up disparate information on individual citizens.

That's the conclusion of a report published by Tory think tank Policy Exchange, which counts among its list of trustees California-based Google wonk Rachel Whetstone, who is married to Steve Hilton - the former "Big Society" adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron.

Big Data - the latest buzzword encompassing data hoarding and processing - is repeatedly making a big splash in Whitehall with many ministers happy-clapping such an "initiative".

It's largest champion is Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, who has steered a "digital-by-default" agenda involving an annual budget of £22m spent on a team of web consultants and developers to reshape the direct.gov.uk portal into a one-stop shop to access government info.

An important chunk of that project involves building a private-sector identity market, allowing companies - and not the government - to retain and manage databases stuffed with sensitive and often confidential information about British citizens.

As noted by Chris Yiu - the author of yesterday's The Big Data Opportunity [PDF] report - it's currently "not possible to retrieve reference information relating to an individual citizen from a single authoritative source".

In part, this is because there isn't a national identity database. He went on to explain the benefits of sharing data across government departments to lessen duplication and cut costs - a mantra often spouted by Maude.

Yiu's paper uses the McKinsey Global Institute's methodology on Big Data to claim that employing such an initiative fully could bring in savings in the UK of between £16bn and £33bn a year. He added that the figures were "necessarily broad-brush".

Tom Hanks in the movie BIG

Tom Hanks perfectly captures all this fuss about BIG

The report put forward a number of recommendations where Whitehall could effectively use data linking and mining to, for example, combat tax fraud or end the paper-and-pen method of collecting population consensus data by instead taking such information pooled from the government's online services.

Facebook, Amazon and Google are held up as shining examples of "collaborative filtering" and having excellent "data visualisation tools" in the report. And although Yiu consciously weaves privacy concerns about Big Data into his paper, such remarks appear to serve merely as lip service to those he describes as "informed sceptics".

Among other things, the think tank is calling on ministers to consider adopting a code for responsible analytics "to help it adhere to the highest ethical standards in its use of data".

And again, taking his cue directly from the mouth of Maude, Yiu breathlessly added: "Across all of this agenda, we believe government should only execute on data and analytics where it is prepared to make an open and transparent case about the public policy benefits."

A point not lost on Guy Herbert of the identity database protest group NO2ID. He told The Register: "This looks like the latest metastasis of the Whitehall information-sharing cult. Not so much lacking privacy but unable to see its relevance when some vague assurance of 'public benefit' is waved around. You are not the customer of this sort of statism, you are the product." ®

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