Joined-up government

If civil liberties campaigners are to be believed, UK citizens face the unwelcome prospect of having their lives scrutinised intensely by an overbearing – and potentially malevolent – state. The UK risks “sleepwalking into a  surveillance society” according to its Information Commissioner.

Much of the alarm at the growth of a Big Brother has centred on plans to reshape data protection laws to allow government departments to more easily share information.

This erosion of protection is a direct threat to civil liberty say campaigners. Writing in The Independent, Shami Chakrabti, director of the pressure group Liberty was incensed: “From those in power, I see nothing but contempt for that little bit of personal space and security that is so essential to our dignity, that makes us all human.”

Such responses are “a very good example of how a perfectly sensible thing can be misconstrued,” the Prime Minister, Tony Blair responded.

The Government is understandably keen to push the benefits of this “sensible” approach. The Department for Work and Pensions, for example, says that in the financial year of 2005-06, roughly £2 billion of taxpayers’ money was wasted as a result of errors in its benefits system. James Plaskitt, a DWP minister, says that half of that wastage could be cut by 2012 with improved data sharing.

But while no doubt mindful of the potential benefits, the Information Commissioner’s Office, which is responsible for overseeing data protection legislation, still gave a cautious response to the plans. It called for “clarity of purpose” when sharing data, so that departments only did so when it was “necessary and reasonable”. It has promised to publish further guidance for public sector organisations shortly.

The divide, whereby one may either regard data sharing as a positive move to improve services or as an infringement of privacy, rather depends on ones attitude towards government, says Dr Larry Ponemon of privacy think-tank The Ponemon Institute.

“When there is uncertainty about your government, it would worry you more that all your data is kept in one place,” he says. “We tend to imagine super-users who have control over people because they have all the information.”

To date, governments have been poor at making use of the information they hold on citizens, says Ponemon. But that will do little assuage the fears over the threat to civil liberties, not least over the issue of inaccuracies.

One of the gravest dangers of data sharing is that inaccurate data will cascade across multiple systems. And as governments, like businesses and individuals, collect more and more data as times goes on, the risks associated with bad data multiply. And “without accuracy, you don’t just get Big Brother,” says Ponemon, “You get stupid Big Brother.”

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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