BCS raps government data-sharing plans

The British Computer Society says a proposed relaxation of UK data-protection laws could leave the door open for a non-benevolent government to undermine democracy
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

A highly respected group of technology experts has hit out at proposed changes to UK data law, saying citizens' civil liberties are at risk of being eroded.

The British Computer Society (BCS) on Monday attacked government proposals, contained in the Coroners and Justice Bill, that would let a minister authorise the sharing of information between government agencies and the private sector.

That means information could be used in ways not intended originally, which would be in direct contravention of the mainstay provisions of the Data Protection Act, BCS told ZDNet UK .

"Our main concern is that [the government] has slipped such a devastating provision — in terms of information sharing — in the Coroners and Justice Bill, when this needs much more public debate," Phillip Webb, chair of the BCS government relations group, said on Tuesday. "This [bill] undermines many provisions of the Data Protection Act."

The proposed law would raise questions about consent, in that people may have consented to provide personal information for one purpose, but then it might be used for another. A future government could misuse these powers to the extent where UK democracy could be debilitated, Webb suggested.

"Once these powers are put in place, they could be used by a [non-benevolent] government to undermine democracy," Webb said.

At issue is paragraph 152 of the Coroners and Justice Bill. This gives a minister (or "designated authority", according to the bill) the power to sign an order which allows the sharing of information between any two agencies in the public and private sector. "Subject to the following provisions of this Part, a designated authority may by order (an 'information-sharing order') enable any person to share information which consists of or includes personal data," paragraph 152 states.

Once barriers to the sharing of personal data come down, a non-benevolent UK government would be in a position to more easily create a totalitarian system, Webb said.

However, the Ministry of Justice on Wednesday rejected suggestions that data protection law, and the rule of law, would be undermined by its proposals.

"The Coroners and Justice Bill does not relax data protection in any way," said a Ministry of Justice spokesperson in a statement. "It allows for an information-sharing order to be proposed where there is a strong case for doing so. The Data Protection Act will very much still apply to any information-sharing arrangements made by such an order."

The spokesperson said that the proposed ministerial power "will be exercised only in circumstances where the sharing of the information is in the public interest and proportionate to the impact on any person adversely affected by it."

The spokesperson said that no new sharing could take place until an order has been approved by both houses of parliament, and that the Minister seeking the order would have to invite representations from all those likely to be affected. The Information Commissioner would also have to submit a report, the spokesperson added.

In a report at the beginning of February, the House of Lords criticised the government over the increasing amount of surveillance UK citizens are being put under.

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