Sharing's caring? Not when you spread data across gov willy-nilly

Privacy campaigners against personal data sharing plans

editorial only image of Whitehall. Pic Daniel Gale/Shutterstock

Digital Economy Bill Privacy campaigners and academics have called for the removal of personal data sharing proposals in the forthcoming Digital Economy Bill.

The Bill puts government ministers in control of citizens' personal data, "a significant change in the relationship between citizen and state," wrote 26 signatories in a letter to The Telegraph today.

"It means that personal data provided to one part of government can be shared with other parts of government and private‑sector companies without citizens' knowledge or consent," said the letter.

It concluded: "If the necessary technical and legal safeguards cannot be embedded in the current Bill and codes of practice, we respectfully urge the Government to remove its personal data-sharing proposals in their entirety."

In a separate blog Edgar Whitley, associate professor of information systems at the London School of Economic, noted that sharing data between government departments for policy purposes is fraught with issues.

He said: "If managed badly, the adage 'garbage in, garbage out' applies and fixing this can add considerable 'hidden' costs to any data-sharing activity."

The National Audit Office has already slammed the Cabinet Office for its poor data sharing, finding 9,000 reported data breaches last year.

A report by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration also found Home Office is failing to "fully exploit the information it receives in relation to data matches" and that it "needs to improve the accuracy of its record keeping, and to introduce some measure of quality assurance for the extracted data."

The letter to The Telegraph said the government should be strengthening, not weakening, the protection of sensitive information, particularly given the almost daily reports of hacks and leaks of personal data.

"Legal and technical safeguards need to be embedded within the Bill to ensure citizens' trust. There must be clear guidance for officials, and mechanisms by which they and the organisations with whom they share information can be held to account."

The problems around government sharing citizen data have long been documented – not least by the government's current technology advisor Liam Maxwell.

Maxwell wrote the paper entitled It's Ours (PDF) back in 2009, when he was Councillor and the Lead Member for Policy and Performance at the Royal Borough of Windsor.

It said: "The government's approach to IT in the public sector is based around the ideal of a benign state with perfect databases." It added:

There are numerous worrying assumptions underlying this approach, including: that the state is able to handle this data effectively (all the evidence to date suggests that is isn't); that the state is able to analyse and use the data to improve public services (again, there is no evidence that this has ever been achieved); that the state should have ownership of all aspects of our personal data (why should they?); and, most importantly of all, that the state should be using all this information to interfere more and more in our everyday lives.

One hopes that Maxwell has expressed those views to current digital minister Matt Hancock, who is responsible for pushing though the new data sharing provisions. ®

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