Privacy campaigners call for rethink on government data-sharing proposals

Written by Rebecca Hill on 25 November 2016 in News

Twenty-six IT experts and privacy advocates have urged the government to improve protections around the personal data sharing proposals in the Digital Economy Bill – or remove them entirely.

Privacy groups have voiced concerns about who will be able to access sensitive data if bill is passed - Photo credit: Pixabay

In a letter to The Telegraph on Friday, the group – which includes digital inclusion charity Doteveryone chief executive Rachel Coldicutt and technology expert Jerry Fishenden – raised concerns about the bill’s information sharing provisions.

The bill, which is due its third reading in the House of Commons on Monday 28 November, will give Whitehall the power to share personal data more widely, including with researchers and energy companies.

The government has said its intention is to reduce fraud, improve public services and make life easier for individuals – for instance by sharing information with energy suppliers to help people in fuel poverty.

However, the letter’s signatories say they are concerned about a lack of clarity and safeguards around these provisions – especially when some of the data will be about income and disabilities.

“Legal and technical safeguards need to be embedded within the Bill to ensure citizens’ trust,” the letter stated.

“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.”

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Bringing government data to life

In addition to privacy campaign groups, such as the Index on Censorship, Big Brother Watch and No2ID, the signatories also include a number of academics from the universities of Southampton, Sussex, Sheffield Hallam and University College London.

They say that if the necessary safeguards cannot be embedded in the bill and codes of practice, “we respectfully urge the government to remove its personal data sharing proposals in their entirety”.

Concerns about the level of detail in the bill around personal safeguards were also raised during the Public Bill Committee stage, which finished at the start of this month.

Giving evidence to the MPs considering the bill, former Government Digital Service boss Mike Bracken said one possible reason for concern was that it did not ask for fundamental changes in the way Whitehall uses data.

“The government uses bulk data too often when what is actually required is only a small amount of data by another government department,” he said.

“I suspect it is that willingness to share very large sets of data in different ways for the convenience of government departments and agencies that is the root cause of the unease around the data sharing part of the Bill.”

Both he and fellow witness Jeni Tennison, chief executive of the Open Data Institute, said there needed to be more clarity on the data-sharing aspect of the bill echoes.

Tennison, describing the current arrangements as “opaque at best”, called for “a lot more transparency” about both the existing and proposed measures “so people can get to grips with the way data is flying through government”.

Many MPs on the committee also indicated that they were concerned the bill would be mired in controversy, asking witnesses how they could avoid a repeat of the situation that led to the scrapping of the NHS patient information sharing programme

Hetan Shah, executive director of the Royal Statistical Society, suggested that “a tremendous amount” could be done to reassure the public by publicising the agencies that excel in handling personal data, such as the Office for National Statistics.

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