Government needs to take care with Digital Economy Bill

“We want the UK to be a place where technology ceaselessly transforms the economy, society and government.” So said Digital Economy Minister, Ed Vaizey. The Digital Economy Bill is an exciting step in the right direction in achieving the vision of a government in which data is central.

Essentially the bill will affect how citizen data is shared across the public sector, meaning the government can utilise citizen data to improve lives by developing government services – making them more nimble and tailored. For instance, the distribution of needless letters to people is earmarked to be scrapped, highlighting its aim to improve access to civil registration data like registers of births and death.

The current system works but improvement is needed, so a push for an updated data-driven system is much needed which is why the bill is good news – it can garner insight into key issues such as fuel poverty or critical health services.

However, in order for the government to execute this initiative and maximise its full potential, there are certain steps that need to be taken into close consideration. These include: ensuring the public sector are crystal clear with us on how it’s using our data and having solid security measures put in place.

A safe pair of hands

The main challenge around explaining the benefits of aggregating and sharing citizen data is, of course, security. This is at the very core of this bill, and quite rightly so. However, this initiative might still set off some internal alarm bells to those who take their privacy seriously.

They will be quick to critique and question it, asking, who will have access to my data? How exactly will it be used? And the age-old question of ‘who will be watching the watcher’? Perhaps those younger generations who are used to freely handing away swathes of their personal data won’t require as much reassurance, however, older generations will, arguably, want these questions clarified.

For data sharing to become a success people need to feel like their data is in capable, safe hands. Therefore, ensuring safeguards are put in place to avoid an Orwellian future or ‘Big Brother’ effect is important. Concerns around security are central to this and will enable the UK to develop as a data-driven economy – continuing to stay at the forefront of technological innovation.

Open is the best policy

The statutory codes of practice laid before Parliament will ensure ethical considerations and principles will be put at the forefront of this data sharing system. This is encouraging but the government needs to be sure to provide clear transparency on the matter and ensure open source and open standards sit at the forefront of any plans.

It’s also important that giant services such as the NHS avoid a potential Google DeepMind fiasco when it comes to using personal data and not properly outlining how it will be used. This is a major case in point on how crucial it is that the government are open about how individuals’ information is being processed and analysed.

The example of Google DeepMind should be a lesson learnt for the government that no matter how good the cause and intention (in Google's case they wanted to use machine learning to analyse images for signs of diseases like diabetes-related sight loss) individuals view their data as sacred, personal to them and take the Data Protection Act seriously.

The benefits that this data sharing strategy would bring are enormous. Therefore the government need to tread carefully when executing it to avoid it crumbling to pieces before it even has the chance to get going.

Aingaran Pillai,  CEO & Founder, Zaizi 

Image source: Shutterstock/Per Bengtsson