Sunday 16 June 2013

Is data-sharing between consenting adults now legal?

Pat Russell is the Deputy Director of the Social Justice Division at the Department for Work and Pensions.

"Improved information sharing of personal and anonymised data between central government and local agencies – and between agencies on the ground", she says on the Institute for Government blog, "has been recognised as being vital to delivering better outcomes at lower cost".

Oh dear.

The Guardian newspaper said on 24 April 2012 that the government planned to increase the level of data-sharing and next day they were reprimanded by Francis Maude, Cabinet Office minister, for misrepresenting him.

"This is not a question of increasing the volume of data-sharing that takes place across government", he said, "but ensuring an appropriate framework is in place so that government can deliver more effective, joined-up and personalised public services, through effective data-linking".

Has Miss Russell fallen into the same trap of confusing data-sharing with the completely different business of data-linking? Will she, too, be reprimanded?

Maybe not.

She says: "One of the key learning points from the project [an example of effective data-sharing] was that there is a lot of mythology around and that many of the information sharing issues are cultural rather than technical or legal".

It's not clear whether Mr Maude disapproves of culture as much as Ms Russell but, like her, he certainly doesn't like myths: "I want to bust the myths around the complexities of data sharing ... we aim to find effective ways of using and sharing data for the good of everyone".

Ms Russell acknowledges that "of course, we all recognise that there have to be safeguards in place". But when is a safeguard a myth? She doesn't tell us. Neither does Mr Maude.

Mr Hague [that's William Hague, UK Foreign Secretary] was busy telling us last week that there are safeguards limiting the uses to which GCHQ put intelligence data. One assumes that they don't share it with HMRC, for example. Or with DWP or the Department of Health or the Department for Education. Or do they? Is that a myth?


Updated 9.3.16

For all his protestations to the contrary, Mr-now-Lord Maude was clearly in favour of massive data-sharing between government departments.

His successor as Cabinet Office Minister, Matt Hancock, is no different. "Data is the fuel for the digital revolution", he is quoted as saying, as though it means something.

"The very best policies and services", he adds, without giving any examples, "are developed around information that’s current, relevant and makes sure you can access government services just as easily as iTunes".


These quotations are culled from a 29 February 2016 Cabinet Office press release, Launch of new data sharing consultation. Apparently "data sharing in the UK [will] bolster security whilst making people's lives better". Unless it undermines security, of course, and wrecks people's lives.

If you can countenance the notion that the Cabinet Office knows how to improve your life and if you are happy to sweep away the "myths" – or "laws" as we used to call them – which prohibit data-sharing, then you may be impressed by the benefits suggested.

What benefits?

Among others, "government can share data to ... support the administering of fuel poverty payments ... [and prevent] authorities sending letters to people who are deceased". Is data-sharing the only solution to these problems? How about a rational energy policy, for example? Lower fuel bills would reduce the number of people who freeze to death and so reduce the number of deceased people the authorities have to write to.

You thought the Cabinet Office was going to promise that data-sharing would eradicate terrorists, paedophiles and tax-dodgers, didn't you. No. Perhaps they've noticed that these problems persist despite the enormous amount of data already at the disposal of the authorities.

The Cabinet Office claim that the Troubled Families programme needs more data-sharing and then undermine their case hopelessly by linking to a document that claims the programme is already succeeding brilliantly with the current data-sharing arrangements.

Normally the government asserts that the incidence of "fraud against the public sector" is microscopic but for the purposes of this press release it has ballooned and apparently the crisis can only be solved by ... more data-sharing, which will also reduce the £24.1 billion of debt the government has incompetently failed to collect.

It's not just the government. More data-sharing will help "citizens manage their debt more effectively", the Cabinet Office say. How? No idea. What about the government debt of £1½ trillion? No idea.

More data-sharing would "support accredited researchers to access and link data to carry out research for public benefit", but again there is no room for any examples. And no mention of the fact that we already have procedures for carefully controlled research (para.1.16) ...

... which just leaves us with our old favourite (and an old favourite of the Russian Tsars') – more data-sharing would allow us to carry out the national census more efficiently ... sorry ... more like iTunes.

It's not just the Cabinet Office. Shakespeare's at it, too. And the NHS. Even Her Majesty's Treasury.

Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt, chairman and co-founder of the Open Data Institute, published The spy in the coffee machine – the end of privacy as we know it in 2008:
... sharing information across government databases will dramatically increase governmental powers – otherwise the UK government wouldn't have proposed it. (p.95)

... we should never forget that bureaucracies are information-thirsty, and will never stop consuming. Indeed, they will never even cut down. They will break or bend their own rules, and any prior specification of how information use will be limited, or data not shared, is not worth the paper it is printed on. (p.212)
No mention of improving people's lives there. Eight years later, you might like to bring that up in your response to the consultation. That, and Government as a Platform.

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