Government needs a data strategy, think tank warns

The government must urgently develop a coherent strategy to cover the way personal data is held and used by public and private bodies, the influential think tank Demos has urged.

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The government must urgently develop a coherent strategy to cover the way personal data is held and used by public and private bodies, the influential think tank Demos has urged.

The left of centre think tank makes the call in a new pamphlet based on a nine-month research project on the collection and use of personal information – whether by government, private companies or social networking websites such as Facebook.

It urges the government to implement “cash-handling” disciplines – the sort of tight, auditable governance procedures used for financial matters – to ensure that individuals’ personal data is treated with “sufficient value and respect”.

Privacy impact assessments should be required for major public and private sector projects, and government departments should have a responsibility to tell individuals how their information is used, the pamphlet says.

Demos – which has been credited with influencing the political philosophy of “New Labour” and whose founder, Geoff Mulgan, is a former head of the Number 10 policy unit – has also taken a harsh line on a flagship government policy.

“There needs to be a serious, renewed debate about the identity card scheme, with the kind of engagement that should have happened at the start of the process,” it says. “Otherwise, the scheme should be dropped.”

The pamphlet also considers the use of personal data by private firms. “Individuals should have the right to know and contest what information about them, their finances and their lifestyle is being traded in the private sector,” it says.

Demos researcher Peter Bradwell, who wrote the pamphlet, said: “People want convenience and personalised public services, but now the power is all in the hands of companies and government. People’s private life becomes impersonal information once it leaves their hands.”

He called for “a political information revolution that gives the power and accountability back to the people”.

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