Monday 20 May 2013

Shakespeare on duty

Stephan Shakespeare, Constitutional expert, writing in An Independent Review of Public Sector Information (p.5):
Consider the role of government: it exists to decide the rules by which people can act, and to administer them: how much, by what method, and from whom to take resources; and how to re-allocate them.
Bit more to it than that, surely, but let's see where this bleak definition takes him.

Shakespeare wants the government to adopt a strategy for public sector information (PSI):
The strategy should explicitly embrace the idea that all PSI is derived from and paid for by the citizen and should therefore be considered as being owned by the citizen. It is the therefore the duty of government to make PSI as open as possible to create the maximum value to the nation. (p.11)
We already know that Shakespeare doesn't believe it when he says that PSI is owned by "the citizen". The citizen's property is to be expropriated and given to "businesses, especially SMEs". The citizen doesn't reap the benefit of their intellectual property. Businesses do, especially SMEs.

More or less reluctantly, the idea is forced on him, it's the government's "duty", no less. It's the government's duty to collect PSI and give it to businesses. And it's the duty of citizens to provide this data (p.14):
We should have a clear pragmatic policy on privacy and confidentiality that increases protections for citizens while also increasing the availability of data to external users. We can do this by using the developing ‘sandbox’ technologies, or ‘safe havens’ ... that allow work on data without allowing it to be taken from a secure area.
"Data should never be (and currently is never) released with personal identifiers", but you never know with Shakespeare, there might be another duty along any minute.

A duty which requires, for example, the identity to be revealed of all women who have had more than one abortion. For insurance purposes, perhaps, increased risk of cancer – one way and another, for the greater good of society.

There are all sorts of "protections" available, as Shakespeare says, like anonymisation and pseudonymisation and encryption but, with the best will in the world, they don't always work, you can't trust them. That shouldn't stop Shakespeare's plan to increase "the availability of [personal] data to external users", he says.

"A National Data Strategy for publishing PSI should include a twin-track policy for data release, which recognises that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good", we see on p.11, followed by "public sector bodies should commit to publishing all their datasets (in anonymised form) as quickly as possible without using quality concerns as an obstacle" on p.12. So when it comes to publishing your medical data, and when all the "protections" have unfortunately failed, just remember (p.15):
We currently have an unrealistic degree of expectation of any data controller to perfectly protect all our data - an attitude that inhibits innovation. Following 'best practice' guidelines should be enough, so long as we are willing to prosecute those who misuse personal data. otherwise we will miss out on the enormous benefits of PSI. [What enormous benefits of PSI? He never tells us.]
Fat lot of use it is to you if the miscreant is prosecuted after the event. It's too late by then. Your privacy has been irreversibly ruptured. Too bad. You had an "unrealistic degree of expectation". That's your problem. The National Data Strategy must proceed.

Suppose the security breach is achieved by someone abroad. Someone beyond the jurisdiction of English law. Then the miscreant can't even be prosecuted. Still the National Data Strategy must proceed. Prosecution is as irrelevant to Shakespeare's purposes as his claim that all PSI belongs to citizens.

He's not entirely ruthless, old Shakespeare. He does grant that ...
We should encourage continuing vigorous debate to achieve the right balance between the benefits and risks of open data (including whether citizens might in certain cases be enabled to opt out of open data).
... but only in brackets and only for some citizens (unspecified) in some cases (unspecified) where they may be able to opt out but, by default, everyone is opted in, it's our duty and any socially irresponsible person trying to opt out will be accused of standing in the way of Shakespeare and finding the cure for cancer. (Shouldn't that be "cures" plural and "cancers" plural? Ed)

That's personal data taken care of. No outstanding problems there. What about university research data? Back to p.9, where Shakespeare says that data scientists must ...
... recognise in all we do that PSI, and the raw data that creates it, was derived from citizens, by their own authority, was paid for by them, and is therefore owned by them ... This should be obvious, but the fact that it needs to be constantly reaffirmed is illustrated by the way that even today, access to academic research that has been paid for by the public is deliberately denied to the public, and to many researchers ... aided by university lethargy ... thereby obstructing scientific progress.
We can't have that. We can't have scientific progress being obstructed.

But it's going to be tricky.

Nigel Shadbolt is a professor at Southampton University. He has started several companies to put his research findings to work including one called Garlik, which he sold to Experian. He is paid a salary by citizens, the university is funded by citizens, you'd think that would be enough but, no, he earns more money by writing and by acting as the consultant to a TV series.

"This should be obvious", the company sale proceeds, the royalties and the fees all properly belong to citizens. The tricky bit, when Shakespeare dutifully asks for our money back, is that as the chairman and co-founder of the Open Data Institute, Nigel Shadbolt is the leading character in Shakespeare's dramatis personae.

A few questions there for the National Data Strategy but let's move on. What about data that belongs to private sector companies, rather than mere individuals or state-funded universities? Shakespeare wants that data as well, to feed to his apps.

This is all to do with evidence-based policy (p.17):
Each government department and wider public sector body should review whether the PSI that they currently hold is being used to maximum effect in developing, evaluating and adapting policy. It should explain what data it used to support any new policy and above all what data will be collected (and published) for continuous measure of its effectiveness.
Government has a duty to act responsibly with public funds, in a businesslike and rational way, and openly. No-one would disagree. The government and the civil service don't always achieve these aims. Come to that, neither does Shakespeare. Never one to let the perfect drive out the good, he's devised his National Data Strategy/Policy and now, back to front, he wants someone to go out and find the evidence to support it (p.16):
Recommendation 7
We should look at new ways to gather evidence of the economic and social value of opening up PSI and government data ...
Never mind Shakespeare, back to private sector companies and their data (p.17):
Where there is a clear public interest in wide access to privately generated data, then there is a strong argument for transparency (for example in publishing all trials of new medicines) ...

A company working with government should be willing to share information about activity in public-private partnerships, as information about activity in public-private partnerships held by private companies is not currently subject to the Freedom of Information Act. This could be greatly enhanced without the need for legislation by creating a field in procurement forms asking for the company’s open data policy regarding the sought contract.
No "need for legislation"? Just a new "field in procurement forms"? Here, Shakespeare's musings come up against a tough and unrelenting reality. He'll find the opposition from private sector companies a lot harder than anything he evidently expects from individuals and universities.

Take an example.

The UK government has a number of policies which depend for their success on mass consumer biometrics being reliable. The government's own trials proved that they're not reliable but they proceed anyway, despite the evidence and despite the admonitions of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. Hopelessly un-Shakespearean.

Among others, there is the government's Immigration and Asylum Biometric System (IABS). That was pursued on the basis of a successful trial of biometrics conducted on behalf of the government by IBM.

Could the public see the IBM trial report, please, asked Citizen Moss? No, said the Home Office, and the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) agreed, citing several exemptions to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

Citizen Moss appealed against the ICO's Decision, it's all set out here, and two years later the Information Tribunal did its duty and upheld the Decision – the IBM trial report should not be published.

IBM said the report belonged to them and not to the Home Office and if it had to be disclosed then they might never be able to work for the Home Office again. The Home Office agreed that the report belonged to IBM even though the Home Office had provided the test data (five million pairs of fingerprints) and specified the acceptance tests and awarded IBM a £265 million contract. They also agreed that they wouldn't be able to do their job if IBM and other private contractors refused to help them. It is their duty, therefore, to withhold the report.

As a clincher, IBM and the Home Office said that the report doesn't prove that the biometrics chosen meet IABS requirements anyway.

That's the law, Citizen Moss was refused permission to appeal, it's not in Shakespeare's gift to change the law and IBM, or whoever, will not be fooled by Shakespeare's schoolboy ruse of "creating a field in procurement forms". They may simply point out that either he means it when he says that "businesses, especially SMEs" can enjoy the benefits of their intellectual property or he doesn't. Either way, they have duties to their shareholders and to the biometrics companies who participated in the trial.

According to the acknowledgements in Shakespeare's report (p.3), he polled, among others. Dixit Shah and Craig Summers of IBM UK. What did they tell him? Was he listening?

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