Can Data Science Transform UK Governance Without Violating Privacy Rights?

As Parliament begins hearings for the proposed Digital Economy Bill, questions have begun to arise about the UK government’s access to big data.

The purpose of the bill is to make the UK “a place where technology ceaselessly transforms the economy, society and government,” according to the Queen’s speech in May 2016, but many believe that this directive barely scratches the surface.

Brexit presents additional complications with the Digital Economy Bill, since little clarity has been provided as to whether or not the GDPR will be in place before the bill becomes law.

The bill proposes changes with regard to data management, that would, for example, allow public authorities to share personal data with other public authorities in an effort to improve individual welfare, expedite registration data (births, deaths, marriages, etc.), and generate more accurate and timely statistics.

As privacy advocates raise awareness about how personal data is mined, aggregated, and used, a growing number of individuals are increasingly disenchanted with the governing bodies that leverage their data to support political agendas.

In theory, policymakers could use data science to “cure” societal problems, but in reality, doing so would entail a massive compromise to its citizens’ privacy rights.

By law, personal data is the property of the individual, but if it’s up to elected officials to decide how much privacy the public is entitled to so they can fix society’s problems, it’s likely that a digital utopia could quickly devolve into a “big brother”-esque nightmare.

As The Guardian puts it: “Such an approach invites public sector bodies to mimic the data free-for-all that currently exists in the private sector.”

Imagine a world where the government has a right to share its citizens’ data the way that social media users have a right to share their personal lives. While a society of “greater openness” might be appealing for some, enacting a blanketed law like this would mean that the government can decide whether or not public information can be repurposed without informed consent.

If the OKCupid Study has taught us anything in the US, it’s that a single piece of information can be publicized or amplified beyond the limits of what the person originally agreed to or intended when they initially (and knowingly) provided it.

Do you think the Digital Economy Bill compromises privacy rights, or do you think the expectations are reasonable?