Along with a range of measures in the Government’s Digital Economy Bill currently making its way through parliament - including some creating an entitlement to minimum broadband speed, age verification for online pornography and new powers for Ofcom - the Bill includes plans for a huge increase in data sharing powers.
The Bill allows for data to be shared between public bodies ‘for certain purposes and in certain circumstances’ to support public service delivery. In practice, these new provisions will put government ministers in control of citizens’ personal data, meaning it will be shared across government - as well as private sector companies providing public services - without the public being informed or providing consent. While assurances may be made that safeguards will be put in place, this is not reflected in the Bill.
There is obviously a huge potential benefit for society which could be realised by increasing the sharing of information, something the BCS has argued for many years, but any increase in data sharing must be accompanied by appropriate protections and oversight to protect the individual. Without these, the public will inevitably be left feeling their information is being handled outside of their control, and the true potential of rational data sharing will be lost amid claims of government abuse. With all that could be achieved through the full and responsible use of data across the public sector, it would be heartbreaking if steps towards this floundered because the necessary protections were overlooked for the sake of achieving short term objectives.
This is not the first time plans for increased government control over data have been put forward, and the BCS has been consistent in objecting when such plans don’t come hand in hand with adequate scrutiny. Back in 2009 when Gordon Brown’s Labour Government attempted to tack similar measures onto the Coroners and Justice Bill, the BCS was clear in its criticism:
“As experience in the last century and elsewhere suggests, it is unwise to rely on the benevolence of a government to sensitively deploy such wide-reaching and general powers as these.”
Groups including the Open Data Institute and the Cabinet Office’s own Privacy and Consumer Advisory Group co-chair Jerry Fishenden have raised concerns over this latest round of expanded power without protections (with a letter of concern co-signed by Fishenden, the BCS and 24 other IT experts being published in the Telegraph recently).
However, with the Cabinet Office determined to push the measures through parliament, where an Opposition still deeply unsure of itself will be unable to provide much in the way of an obstacle, the Bill looks set to be signed into law by the summer.
The important thing now, therefore, is to try to ensure adequate scrutiny of the new measures exist when they are introduced. The public must be given a sense of control over where and how their data is shared, which can only be achieved with safeguards and oversight of those doing the sharing.
We need to continue to find improved ways to achieve the Government’s stated objectives of enabling ‘data sharing for a public benefit’ with adequate protections. Though with only vague details on exactly what the Government considers success to look like, this may prove difficult for industry stakeholders and the public alike.
James Davies, BCS Policy Programmes Manager.