Serious concerns are being raised over the “gold rush” for citizen data by the U.K. government and its private sector partners.
While the government uses unidentifiable data for good purposes such as analyzing disease or crime patterns, it often rushes to sell data on members of the public before proper principles and trust are established, data experts have told Forbes.
This week, it was reported in the Times newspaper that Google has pulled out of a deal to include data from the NHS, the U.K.’s public healthcare system, within its search results. Data provision would have gone ahead under Care.data – an NHS plan to sell patient data sets to a range of companies, which led to a data privacy outcry. Google said more debate was needed. In a separate incident, the British government has been heavily criticized in an official review for effectively selling the control over public address data to private shareholders during the flotation of Royal Mail.
The public sector, as with businesses, is “caught up in a big data gold rush”, says Mark Little, principal analyst at Ovum, in spite of some good intentions to benefit society and the economy. “Both the Royal Mail and the NHS appear to be rushing to deliver the socio economic value, running before they can walk.”
Data protection is improving in a number of areas, Little says, but organizations need to do “far more sophisticated work” around core project principles, security and public consultation.
Georgina O’Toole, a director at TechMarketView, says there is plenty of potential for anonymous data to be used to help spot issues such as geographical patterns in the occurrence of certain diseases, and good work is being done in these areas for real public benefit. “The issue is whether citizens trust the government to ensure their own personal data is kept safe,” she says.
“What will stop, for example, a medical insurance company increasing premiums in an area where a high incidence of certain diseases been spotted?”
Even if the public accepts that cyber security, data protection and the need for anonymous information are higher up the agenda, she notes, “it won’t stop the fear that their data will be shared deliberately, and end up being used for purposes that were previously unintended”.
Last month, the NHS said it would extend the public awareness campaign before continuing its care.data project, but an official risk analysis was revealed showing the strong potential of patient data being identified when compared with other publicly available information. With regards to the postal code data, Royal Mail has said it is working on a proposal to widen access to the database “at a fair price”. The U.K.’s Cabinet Office had not provided comment on government steps to protect citizen data at the time of writing.