UK government proposes public sector data sharing

News by Doug Drinkwater

A leaked document reveals that the British government plans to revise data collection laws so that it can share personal details on earnings, tax and criminal records, benefits payments and more with all agencies in the public sector.

The Telegraph broke the news and disclosed that these data sharing changes are laid out in a four-month old discussion document, which was drawn up by the Cabinet Office Data Sharing Policy Team and signed off on by minister Francis Maude.

The plan is for government to side-step the Data Protection Act – which makes sharing within the public sector difficult – by collecting and sharing voters' driving licences, criminal records, energy usage and other personal details between the various state databases maintained by local authorities, schools, police forces and other agencies in the public sector.

The changes will be contained in a White Paper to be published in the Autumn and could feature as part of draft legislation after the 2015 General Election, according to the newspaper's sources.

It is claimed that the UK government is looking to make these changes in a bid to mimic private companies like Google and use big data analytics to identify certain members of society. According to the leaked document, the government will, in particular, look to identify troubled families, elderly people in need of support, and to cut fraud  - while there is also interest in becoming more “intelligent” and “nimble” in how it collects data.

The document reportedly notes: "People tend to assume that government can share data between departments to complete simple tasks, and are surprised to learn that it cannot.

"Removing barriers to sharing or linking datasets can help government to design and implement evidence-based policy - for example to tackle social mobility, assist economic growth and prevent crime."

Online privacy is likely to come into question as a result of the document, especially as consent is not currently required, although the document details how the committee has already consulted privacy groups such as Liberty and Big Brother Watch.

Ministers are apparently “acutely sensitive” to public concern about privacy, so says the document, although most are split on whether the public should be consulted – a reaction perhaps to the backlash against the NHS' postponed care.data scheme.

The proposals apparently stipulate that user data will be anonymised, although this could be questioned, especially as the document claims that energy efficiency could be improved “by matching people's gas and electricity use with information about their property held by the Land Registry.”

Data may also be sold to any organisations providing public services, including third-parties providing outsourcing services.

Forrester analyst Andrew Rose said that most people will, however, already expect the government to hold these powers.

“I believe that the strongest outcry is likely to come from the press headlines and the public reaction is likely to be a lot more restrained, mainly because I think most people expected the government to have this sort of power anyway,” Rose told SCMagazineUK.com.

“This isn't anything unexpected either. This is government seeking to leverage its data resources to drive efficiency and performance. When a citizen dies, for example, how much better to drive all the required responses from a single notification which flows across systems rather than having to notify eight different departments individually.”

He added: “It also enables the government agencies to collaborate, interact and react much more rapidly - we've recently seen examples of airline passengers travelling on passports that were reported stolen two years earlier and this sort of big data could prevent that.”

Stewart Room, a privacy lawyer who is due to join Pwc as head of the cyber and data security practice, agreed with Rose that such sharing is ‘non-controversial' saying to SCMagazine.com that he urged these departments to ensure that they fall within the scope of the law.

'The idea that government departments should be able to share personal data is of itself non-controversial,” said Room. “However, data sharing schemes must be lawful and consistent with the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights.

“As a first step, the creation of legislative gateways for data sharing is vital for non-consensual shares. That's really the substance behind this story. Provided that the legislation is clearly drafted and that the shares do not go further than is necessary for the pursuit of legitimate government business, with proper checks and balances to avoid abuse of the law, the proposed idea of enhanced data sharing will pass the first tests of legal legitimacy.

“If the sharing enhances public services and saves taxpayer cash, then it's obvious that the government will want to explore the possibilities. However, I do expect that some privacy advocates will be alarmed by this story.”

Bob Tarzey, director and consultant at IT consultancy Quocirca, said that it makes sense for the government to collect this information using big data and said that there's ‘plenty of good reasons' for them to do so providing implementation isn't a ‘disaster'.

“This looks a bit like government-big data – it has lots of data (volume), from lots of sources (variety) but lacks the ability to make good integrated use of it (velocity) to provide value to its citizens through improved services and reduced cost for tax payers.

“Of course, some will moan about privacy, but on the whole there are plenty of good reason for UK government to make better use of all its data with the right reassurances about its intent and privacy.”

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