It is a terrible irony if, as the Government squabbled with itself over the breadth of its mishandled Communications Data Bill, some of its most contentious provisions were already in effect via the back door as Sharmi Chakrabati, director of human rights group Liberty puts it, through the no-longer secret US spy programme, PRISM.
Dragged by Labour to the House last Monday, The Foreign Secretary basically denied that any UK laws had been broken. But, as someone pointed out, the fact is that UK laws are not up to date with the technology. Many were concerned that updating them would enshrine overly intrusive Government in legislation. But equally, by keeping them in the 20th Century we may have allowed 21st Century Big Data a freer rein than we might want.
The revelations demonstrate the dangers of a debate which has been highly polarised but narrowly limited to a small number of measures, without a wider discussion of the relationship between the Government, data and the people.
As part of my brief for open and digital Government, as well as Cyber Security, I have been thinking about what that discussion should entail.
My background as an Electrical Engineer has made me a champion of the opportunities technology brings. But in my last job, as Head of Telecoms Technology for Ofcom, the Communications Regulator, I also saw many of the dangers, from digital exclusion to excessive surveillance and attacks on privacy.
The internet should lead to flatter, more direct relationships which enable individuals to redress the balance of power with Governments and big companies.
But millions are being left out. All the more so because of Big Data.
Big data crosses all sectors of the economy and society. Cheap storage and intelligent analytics mean that it is becoming easier for third parties to use that footprint to draw conclusions about who we are, what interests us, what we want to buy, what services we need... what our political views may be. The cliché information is power takes on a whole new meaning.
We need to make sure that power is shared. Because there are still some 16 million people in the UK who lack basic online skills. Of the 11 million people in the U.K. who do not use the internet four million are the most socially and economically disadvantaged in the country. Some 70% of people who live in social housing and a third of those with disabilities are not online. Some 38% of people not online are also unemployed.
And yet 80% of Government interactions with the public are with the bottom 25%.
We need shared values in the virtual world if digital Government is to empower the many not the few and offer both protection and privacy. In speaking to individuals and organisations promoting digital engagement and democracy, five key principles for digital Government are emphasised. I’d be interested to know the views of ComputerworldUK readers.
- We will equip you to live safely and securely in cyber society. In the 19th Century we recognised the duty of the state to promote certain outcomes in the real world such as health and education. Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, describes the Internet as the world’s largest ungoverned space. I believe we have a duty to promote digital literacy and security, a duty this Government is manifestly failing.
- Your data is your own – you should be able to have access to it across the private and public sectors. Over the last twenty years we have seen great progress in recognising people’s ownership of their own data but much more can be done. An excellent example of how data can empower is an social enterprise called ‘patients knows best’ which empowers patients to take control over managing their own healthcare by giving access to their medical records. Equally, detailed analysis of electricity usage can help individuals take on the Big Energy companies and reduce their bills. And there are many other potential areas where service users can use their own data to help define and improve their service in both the public and private sectors.
- Government will use your data transparently and securely for the public good and for your good. The Communications Data debacle illustrates how much mistrust there is of Government access to individual data. But the Government is championing Open Government by giving the private sector easy access to public sector data on the assumption that new services and applications will spontaneously blossom. So far very few have. We need a more proactive approach.
- You will have a stake in how your data is used even when you are no longer associated with it. When it comes to public data simply by taking your name off the record doesn’t mean that the you should lose your stake in it. It’s value you created. And is it really right that phone companies should be able to take your phone bill, tippex your name and address off it and then sell it?
- We will empower you to stand on the shoulders of Big Data and hold them and us to account.
Only then will the transformative power of digital democracy really be realised.
This article is adapted and updated from Chi Onwurah's recent speech to the Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy. It forms part of the Labour Party's ongoing policy debate
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