By Steven McGinty
Last May, the Open Rights Group announced that they were in discussions with the UK Government over their proposals to remove the barriers to data sharing and link up government databases. This would mean that thousands of government databases, containing information such as criminal records and even energy use, could be accessed by local councils, schools, the civil service and the police. It’s hoped that the sharing of data will allow the government to capitalise on big data techniques and provide better and more tailored public services.
However, several issues have been identified that may make widespread government data sharing challenging. These include:
- a lack of prioritisation by local council and government leaders;
- concerns over protecting the privacy of citizens;
- a mistrust of government data handling;
- the use of different systems and different standards by government bodies.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) reports that from April 2013 to March 2014 there were just over 1500 breaches of the Data Protection Act. Local authorities accounted for 234 of these breaches, coming second only to health organisations, who committed 551 breaches. In the last quarter of the year, the most common offences were disclosing personal information in error (175 incidents) and lost or stolen paperwork (74 incidents).
The ICO has also handed out several high profile fines to organisations in the public sector. For example, North East Lincolnshire Council was fined £80,000 for losing an unencrypted USB stick which held the personal and sensitive data of children. Similarly, Aberdeen City Council were fined £100,000 after a member of their staff accidently uploaded documents onto the internet, including personal information about social care cases.
The Improvement and Development Agency (I&DeA) released a report in 2010 on the role of data sharing in tackling worklessness. The report findings, still relevant today, highlighted the importance of developing data sharing systems that:
- build in the need for data sharing into the design;
- adopt clear and consistent definitions;
- respect the privacy of individuals;
- ensure data integrity.
Further, the report explained how anonymised personal data can be used to share data legally. For example, anonymised data (data which has had its identifiable information removed), has been used increasingly to provide local analysis across a number of areas, including health, crime and employment. Some examples include Eastleigh Ambition, which uses data to target and support vulnerable families, and Newham Council, who use a range of data, including Disability Living Allowance information to improve their understanding of changing populations and needs.
Working in partnership and using technological innovations has also provided solutions for data sharing issues. For instance, the Tyne and Wear City Strategy Partnership was established to purchase a shared customer tracking system to facilitate data sharing. The system has been rolled out in a variety of ways across the North East of England, with partners helping to make the system more user friendly. The system has been designed to ensure that consent is built in whenever data is shared. Users also have different levels of access depending on their organisation and on what they ‘need to know’, to ensure compliance with the Data Protection Act.
Although there have been some high profile cases of government data mishandling, it’s clear that data sharing will continue to increase, particularly as all levels of government look for more targeted services. Government and society will have to come to an agreement on how this should be done.
- How will government share your data? (The Open Rights Group, 2014)
- Revealed: Whitehall plans to share your private data (The Telegraph, 2014)
- Data Sharing (Datasharing, 2014)
- Data breach trends (Information Commissioners Office, 2014)
- ICO DPA Fines (Breachwatch, 2014)
- Research on the Costs and Benefits of Personal Data Sharing at Local Partnership Level (Department for Communities and Local Government, 2008)
- Tackling worklessness: Data sharing (IDeA, 2010)