Opposition MPs and campaigners have warned that changes to data protection rights are being made without proper scrutiny after prime minister Gordon Brown slipped a raft of new data sharing powers into his proposed programme of legislation.
Brown’s planned new powers were buried in the detail of proposed government bills on terrorism, education and skills and the sale of student loans, ComputerworldUK revealed last week.
Fears about increasing levels of data sharing and surveillance have also been stoked by the news that the Home Office plans to hand data on millions of people’s car journeys to police to use in anti-terrorism work – and possibly for wider crime fighting purposes. Leaked documents have shown that the plans have sparked disagreement within Whitehall.
Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson, called for an overhaul and strengthening of Britain’s data protection laws as the government moved towards increased data sharing, matching and mining.
"These changes, because they are being introduced piecemeal, are simply not being subjected to adequate scrutiny,” he said.
"It is time for a full update of the 1998 Data Protection Act to strengthen the basic protections it offers, and align it with the complex new technologies that are now available."
The Conservative party also warned that increased data sharing could increase the risk of misuse and fraud. “It is for this reason that the Government must ensure that appropriate safeguards and shields are put in place,” shadow home affairs minister James Brokenshire said.
Becky Hogge, executive director of data privacy campaign the Open Rights Group, said: “This is a worrying trend. The debate doesn’t seem to be one we’re having out in the open. Lots of this is tacked on to bills that are not ostensibly about data sharing.
“This level of data sharing does have the power to alter the relation between citizen and state.”
Any relaxation of data protection laws should be “closely scrutinised and evaluated”, she warned.
New data sharing powers for the police, intelligence and security agencies are included in Brown’s proposed Counter Terrorism Bill, while the Education and Skills Bill outlined in the draft legislative programme includes measures – described as “subject to policy clearance” – that would enable data sharing, particularly with HM Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions.
The proposed bill is largely aimed at raising the school leaving age and ensuring training for adults, but the draft programme says the data sharing powers would “help report on whether the system as a whole is delivering economically valuable skills” – a statement that may suggest the government will seek to check individuals’ employment status or income after training.
Brown is also proposing to sell off the student loans portfolio, which is due to generate £6bn receipts over the next three years. Data sharing powers included in a Sale of Student Loans Bill would allow information on the loans held by HM Revenue and Customs to be disclosed to the purchasing company.
A spokesperson for the Information Commissioner’s Office said the watchdog was not aware of any proposals to amend the 1998 Data Protection Act. It was important that any data sharing “takes place within the framework of safeguards that the act provides”, she added.
But new moves to allow the transfer of car number plate data to police to aid counter-terrorism work, announced by ministers this week, required home secretary Jacqui Smith to sign a certificate exempting the police and Transport for London from the Data Protection Act’s provisions.
Brown’s data sharing measures notably do not follow the lines suggested by his predecessor, Tony Blair. The former prime minister had also proposed greater data sharing between government agencies – but said the move was aimed at improving public services by reducing the amount of form filling for individuals.
The new measures are included in planned legislation that is not focused on welfare or improving public services.