The Digital Economy Bill – Why Would You Trust The Government With Your Data?

5th December 2016 / Surveillance, UK Civil Liberties and Rights Newscast, United Kingdom

By Renate Samson – Whether we like it or not, we are all digital citizens living in a data driven society.  Our personal information is currency and we have to share it every day.

But who should control how our personal information is used and how it is shared?  Should it be us or the Government?

I am guessing you said us. Well I would agree. But the UK Government thinks differently.

Today the Digital Economy Bill returns to Parliament for its critical Report Stage.  You probably haven’t paid that much attention to it, what with Brexit, Trump and the Autumn Statement.

You may have read about Government plans for porn filters, age verification and superfast broadband; these are the headline grabbing elements of the Bill.

What you are most likely to have missed is the bit about Digital Government. The part which will personally impact you more than anything else; the part about how the state wants to take control of your personal information and share it without your consent, knowledge or right to amend.

Any piece of personal information you are asked to hand over to the state – and it is a lot more than you realise – will be subject to broad sharing capabilities. Not only will it be passed around government, but it will be shared on request with local councils, quangos, statistical authorities, charities and businesses.

Yes business. Initially, gas and electricity companies. But despite promises, it is entirely conceivable that private health providers, credit reference agencies and insurance companies will be lined up further down the line as those “specified persons” with permission to access and make decisions about your personal information.

The Bill’s intention is to create better data sharing gateways. The plans to digitise our birth, death, marriage and civil partnership certificates – which will be stored and shared in bulk – will make the sharing of our personal information as easy as clicking a mouse.  There will be no requirement for them to consult you. You won’t be asked in advance, you won’t even be told after the event and you won’t have the chance to opt out.

Worried?  You should be. Do you remember the ID card furore before the 2010 general election?  The scheme was axed at great expense when public support for the plans plummeted after it was revealed that HMRC had lost personal information belonging to 25 million child benefit claimants.

Only then did the reality of how insecure our data is sink in. It’s worth noting the lost information still hasn’t been recovered almost 10 years later.

Don’t be fooled that things have improved. In 2014/15 government departments experienced almost 9,000 data breaches, according to a recent National Audit Office report.

Indeed, Freedom of Information reports published by Big Brother Watch over the past three years have revealed that data is breached on average six times every day in the NHS, four times a day by local councils and 10 times a week by the police.

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The revelation of poor data security led to the scrapping of the ID card scheme and before that, in 2009, to the Labour government pulling back on almost the exact same proposals as the Digital Economy Bill is making now – plans to prevent us from controlling how our data is used.

But will we be so lucky this time?

Government has the opportunity to lead the way here. Giving people control of their data, trusting and encouraging them to share not everything but the bare essentials when asked, is a model it ought to be promoting.  This would be fast, efficient, cost effective, safe and data protection compliant.

Furthermore, if the Government wants to foster a functioning digital economy, then engaging the citizen to care about their data rather than putting it beyond their reach would be a good start and would properly revolutionise the relationship between citizen, state and data.

The Investigatory Powers Bill has just passed with little fanfare, don’t let the Digital Economy Bill go the same way. Don’t hand the keys to your personal data over to the state without a fight.


Renate Samson is Chief Executive of Big Brother Watch.

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