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Running before you can walk; Government plans to share your data

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

According to a story in Monday’s Daily Telegraph the Government is going to propose a massive extension in the amount of data that can be shared between Government departments. To quote the story:

 

Details of the financial history, qualifications and property wealth of millions of Britons could be shared across Whitehall for the first time without their consent, the Telegraph can disclose.

 

Information including voters’ driving licences, criminal records, energy use and even whether they use a bus pass could be shared under a radical blueprint to link up thousands of state databases used by schools, councils, police and civil servants.

 

The proposals are likely to ignite privacy concerns if officials are granted unprecedented access to citizens’ private data. 

The rationale behind this type of sharing seems to be fourfold; again from the Telegraph:

 

  • Ministers believe the ability to aggregate and “mine” citizens’ data under a new legal framework will allow them to better monitor economic growth and population movements, identify troubled families and elderly people in need of support, and cut fraud.
  • They want to copy sophisticated customer analysis techniques developed by retailers such as Amazon and Tesco to develop a significantly more “intelligent”, “nimble” and cheaper State.
  • 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

I like the idea of ‘Big Data’ and agree with the Government (via the Telegraph’s story) about the potential benefits but I do have this sneaking suspicion that the Government are, in their enthusiasm, trying to run before they have even learnt to walk.

 

Probably the biggest area where the sharing of data and information could benefit the public is in the sharing of data within health and social care. The Government have tried a couple of routes to solve this problem and both have had their problems. The first was the Caldicott 2 review which included within its diverse recommendations a ‘Duty to Share’. The recommendations were accepted by the Government and many of them then left up to local bodies to implement.

 

I’m not going to pretend to be a full expert on information sharing but my experience so far has been that even with the ‘Duty to Share’ the barriers to sharing are more cultural and practical. Organisations don’t have proper information sharing agreements between them, consent is not gathered from the public in a systematic manner and even if the first two are sorted out the IT makes it difficult to share appropriately.

 

Secondly, the Government tried care.data which would have collected a large amount of health data, packaged it up and then provided it, anonymously or pseudonymously, to researchers, private organisations and others with an interest in health and improving health outcomes. All of this would have been done without consent and once the public found out about it there was a fairly large backlash and the plan was postponed.

 

The two examples taken together explain why I am nervous about the Telegraph’s report. The care.data fiasco has made the public nervous about the Government’s intentions when it comes to data sharing and any plan to share ‘financial history, qualifications and property wealth of millions of Britons’ is only going to make the public even more sceptical about data sharing and the Government holding their information.

 

Meanwhile, the bigger issues surrounding data sharing amongst professionals where the sharing could directly improve the services received by the public are not being addressed. The Government has recognised some of this by including data sharing targets within the Better Care Fund but they could do a lot more.

 

Then, once the public are comfortable with providing consent for data sharing that directly benefits them it is easier to ask them for consent to share information in other ways.

 

The British public share their personal data all the time with all sorts of people. The difference here is that they don’t trust the Government and can’t see the direct benefits to themselves; I’d hope the Cabinet Office would focus on those two issues and keep the grand plans until they’ve proven to the British public that they’ve learnt to walk the walk.

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