Privacy watchdog fears government super-database

Privacy watchdog fears government super-database

Summary: Information Commissioner warns that relaxing the regulations governing civil servants' access to data has significant privacy implications

TOPICS: Security

The Information Commissioner's Office, the UK's privacy guardian, has warned that the government's new data-sharing proposals could damage privacy.

On Monday, Prime Minister Tony Blair hosted a seminar at Number 10 Downing Street to discuss areas of government policy including the "impact of data-sharing and privacy laws on [government] customer service" as part of an ongoing governmental policy review. The review has recommended a relaxation of the data-sharing laws that govern how civil servants access and share citizens' personal data.

The key area of policy which seeks to guarantee the privacy rights of the UK public is the Data Protection Act. But, according to the PM's policy review, "overzealous data sharing rules may be an obstacle to improving public services".

The policy review has recommended that data sharing rules be relaxed as "current privacy procedures and working practices can sometimes still force people to have to convey the same information multiple times to different agencies".

The Data Protection Act prevents public bodies from sharing data about individuals, unless those officials have a clear "need to know".

Responding to the policy review, the Information Commissioner's Office warned that relaxing these rules could cause excessive surveillance and data-sharing, leading to loss of public trust and confidence in the government.

"We all want to see information used to provide high-quality and efficient public services, but public trust and confidence may well be jeopardised with any wholesale or unrestrained sharing of personal information," said the ICO.

The ICO said it was important to strike a balance between the need to share information as part of delivering efficient public services and the need to ensure privacy and the integrity of personal information.

The privacy watchdog said that "a cautious approach to information sharing is needed in order to avoid the dangers of excessive surveillance and the loss of public trust and confidence".

"As more and more information is passed from one database to another there is a greater risk to individuals from inaccurate or insecure information and mistaken identity," the ICO said in a statement. "Two months ago the Information Commissioner warned about the dangers of a surveillance society and the need to consider the wider risks to society if the government knows too much about us.

"There must be clarity of purpose and some limits to sharing — information must not be shared just because the technology allows it," said the ICO.

According to the ICO, it is essential that information is only shared to the extent that it is necessary and reasonable to do so, and that strong safeguards are put in place that work in practice, not just in theory.

Snooping dangers
The policy review criticised current data-sharing laws, saying that it is difficult for government services to anticipate or deal with problems such as bereavement quickly and sensitively when "there are barriers around the sharing of information" between different public services.

However, the ICO said that the Data Protection Act already allows for detailed information sharing, while attempting to safeguard citizens' rights against government snooping.

"The Data Protection Act provides a valuable framework for sharing information across government and should not be seen as a barrier. The Act underpins essential safeguards such as accuracy, security and openness and gives us all important rights in an age where increased levels of information are being collected and traded," said the ICO.

Answering a policy review assertion that some civil servants are either constrained by or unsure about the legality of data-sharing, the ICO said it was developing "practical, common-sense guidance... to help public authorities, which will be published shortly".

The Number 10 policy review will consult members of a citizens' panel "to ask whether they would be in favour of relaxing current privacy procedures so they don't have to repeat personal information to several different public bodies", according to the Number 10 website.

Anti-ID Card campaign group No2ID said that this question was deliberately phrased to obscure the privacy implications of a relaxation of data-sharing laws.

"Real debate is too unpredictable. By controlling the questions considered by his discussion groups, Mr Blair intends to make sure that 'the people' only tell him what he wants to hear," the campaign said on its website.

Topic: Security

Tom Espiner

About Tom Espiner

Tom is a technology reporter for He covers the security beat, writing about everything from hacking and cybercrime to threats and mitigation. He also focuses on open source and emerging technologies, all the while trying to cut through greenwash.

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  • Don

    I used to get worked up about stories such as this but then I started to notice a pattern in public sector procurement that gives me some hope:

    1) Deal signed with approved services contractor with close links to a US technology firm. UK SME market ignored.
    2) UK bureaucrats out of their depth in the procurement of suitable solutions agree to weasal worded contracts that lock-in their department to 10+ years of outsourcing misery.
    3) Contractor decides to use the most complex, 'enterprise-class' technology that guarantees years of onsite configuration work.
    4) Armed with spurious 'IT Communication' degrees, graduate consultants are landed onsite and instructed to grapple with selected technology.
    5) Configuration wizard not found in Start Menu. Errrrr ...
    6) Time passes.
    7) Overspend buried in departmental restructuring programme.
    8) Several years and
  • I hope you're right

    I hope you're right (goes ahead and then screws up) and it doesn
  • Privacy watchdog fear of govt super DB

    Very simply, the privacy expert AND all of us should be much more fearful of the information private companies (insurance, credit, etc) have on us that keep getting stolen week after week because thos companys privacy experts cannot figure out how to secure it.\

    I'm not stupid, we should keep a wary eye on the govt database but for now it really is for our countrys protection.

    It amazes me that day after day confidential data gets stolen from financial companies, insurance companies and the like and it's not as important as this. It's not just the data that's stolen that concerns me it's simply the data they have on all of us. That is my biggest fear privacy wise.