Government proposes additional use of citizen information

The UK Government believes that data protection laws must be changed to facilitate more efficient Government, but privacy campaigners fear that changes would introduce a 'big brother' style all-knowing bureaucracy.

Prime Minister Tony Blair is conducting a policy review which aims to break down the barriers between blocks of information held by Government on citizens. Currently data protection law prevents one department using information gathered by another in most cases, and Blair wants to ask a specially convened panel of citizens to give their view on changing that law.

"Some individuals can regularly deal with as many as 30 different agencies, none of whom share information on that individual," said John Hutton, the government's Work and Pensions Secretary.

"We need to ask whether people would be in favour of relaxing current privacy procedures and data sharing laws if it would mean improved public service, particularly at points of greatest stress," said Hutton.

One of the main principles of data protection law is that information gathered for one purpose should not be used for any other purpose. Changes being sought by government would require that principle to be set aside.

"Too often it may be legally forbidden to use information other than for a single purpose," said a statement from Blair's office on the proposed changes. "At other times services may assume there is a legal barrier when there is none, and sometimes it is the traditional culture of separate government departments, divisions between different agencies or even separate parts of a single local authority that contribute to delays and barriers."

Any plans may involve a change in the law, said Dr Chris Pounder, a data protection expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM. "The issue about Hutton's plans is whether the sharing is by consent of the data subject or via statutory power," said Pounder. "If it's consent, there is no data protection issue under the first principle, or interference in terms of human rights."

"The Government in its Vision Statement argued that sharing was in the "public interest", which implies statutory powers to legitimise the sharing," he said. "In addition, the term 'necessary in the public interest' is a term identified in the ID Card Act and this explicitly refers to the purpose of 'securing the efficient and effective provision of public services'."

The plan to make the changes is one of the issues that will be put to newly convened citizens' panels, a proposal from Blair to involve people more heavily in government decision making.

The proposed ID card database, the National Identity Register, is the most likely central hub of any new data sharing system, experts believe. Campaigners against the controversial card and register say that the new plans would increase the state's power over individuals.

"NO2ID’s warnings about the database state are coming true," said Phil Booth, NO2ID's National Coordinator. "Mr Blair doesn’t trust us, but he expects us to put absolute trust in all government departments. By tearing down the fundamental safeguard of confidentiality, he intends to give them all the right to talk about us behind our backs, which means more power to intervene in our lives when it suits them."

“For a government that can’t look after its own employees’ personal information, and that is so plainly incompetent at linking computer systems to imagine this will increase efficiency is ludicrous," said Booth. "That it expects people to give up all privacy and just trust it is frightening. The vast majority of people already don’t.”

The new plans are along similar lines to those uncovered by OUT-LAW early last year, when it was revealed that the government's Citizen Information Project proposed the use of the identity register for other, administrative functions. Those functions are additional to those listed as the reasons for an identity register in the last Labour Party manifesto.

Blair said at a Downing Street meeting today to launch the idea of the citizen panels that the move was not a pre-cursor to a surveillance society.

"This is a very good example of how a perfectly sensible thing can be misconstrued," he said. "The purpose of this is not to create a new piece of technology at all or a new database. This is about sharing data in a sensible way so that the customer gets a better public service."