UK law changes planned to liberalise citizen data held by public bodies

Out-Law News | 01 Mar 2016 | 5:27 pm | 3 min. read

The UK government will change the law to make it easier for public sector organisations to share the personal information of citizens so as to "improve the welfare of the individual in question", the Cabinet Office has said.

"A single gateway" to facilitate data sharing will be set up under the new legislation, it said. Disclosure would only be permitted in specific circumstances, with the new laws giving UK ministers the power to "modify or add objectives for which information may be disclosed" so long as those objectives satisfy criteria to be set out in the legislation, according to the Cabinet Office's consultation paper (39-page / 881KB PDF).

"The purpose of the objective must be to improve outcomes for citizens and result in an offer of a service," the Cabinet Office said. "Furthermore, it cannot be used for punitive purposes, or where the benefit is to the wider community rather than individual citizens."

"The objective must have as its purpose: the improvement or targeting of a public service provided to individuals of a particular description, or the facilitation of the provision of a benefit (whether or not financial) to individuals of a particular description, and the improvement of the well-being of individuals. Further detail is provided on what is meant by well-being of individuals, which might be, for example, physical, emotional or social well-being," it said.

Further restrictions on when data disclosures would apply.

The Cabinet Office said that if objectives pursued could be met without data sharing then disclosures would not be permitted. In addition, data would only be shared if "it is not realistic and practicable to use consent to achieve the intended outcome or use of consent would not meet the criteria of free and informed decision making". The sharing of personal data under the proposals would also only be permitted if the "sharing and analysis of de-identified data would not achieve the intended outcome", the Cabinet Office said.

The proposals are part of wider plans to enable better sharing and use of data by public sector organisations. Other proposals relate to helping citizens address debts owed to public bodies, identifying fraud and making more use of data for research purposes and within official statistics.

A range of data privacy and security measures will apply under the proposals. The Cabinet Office said its plans "are not about selling public or personal data, collecting new data from citizens or weakening the Data Protection Act".

Data sharing arrangements will be governed by two codes of practice that are to be created and laid before parliament. Public bodies that share or use data in a way that does not comply with the codes could be prevented from disclosing or receiving data under the new data sharing powers, the Cabinet Office said.

"The code will reinforce the need for authorities using the power to follow the data protection principles as well as guidance issued by the information commissioner," the Cabinet Office said. "Each code will reinforce the data protection principle of proportionate usage and will challenge proposed data sharing arrangements whether aggregate, general or de-identified data would meet needs rather than using identified data."

"Where it is determined that identified data is required for the purposes of the data share, the challenge will then be whether binary checks/data matching will suffice. Bulk data transfers should only take place where there is a strong case to do so and objectives cannot be met through other methods, and only then with the condition that there are the appropriate secure processes, systems and data transmission methods to ensure that it can take place safely," it said.

In addition, the government said it intends to introduce a new criminal offence for unlawful disclosure of personal data. Under the proposals, people found guilty of unlawful disclosure could face up to two years in jail as well as a fine.

The Cabinet Office's plans are open to consultation until Friday 22 April.

"These legislative proposals are one part of a broader programme on data, where our aim is to transform and improve the relationship between citizen and state," the Cabinet Office said. "The data programme has data security at its heart, and includes proposals to expand the use of appropriate and ethical data science techniques to help tailor interventions to the public, and also to start fixing government’s data infrastructure to better support public services. It will enable a shift towards querying datasets through APIs in place of the typical practice of using bulk data shares, with positive benefits on privacy and security."

"Where data is connected for research or operational purposes there will be clear processes and greater transparency about how that data is used, and repercussions on those who break these codes of practice. It will also mean citizens gain greater visibility about what data is held on them and how it is used. Open data is a priority and the programme will continue to support the release of data that will help innovators to develop new services," it said.