UK National Data Strategy does not do enough to protect people's rights

The UK National Data Strategy sets out an agenda that prioritises data availability and sharing over data ethics, user protections and trust.

Earlier this month, 5Rights submitted its response to the UK National Data Strategy consultation. The consultation was launched during London Tech Week and sought to explore “whether or not the strategy appropriately reflects the opportunities and challenges of our hyper-digitised world.” The strategy set out to consider all relevant priorities, potential trade offs and decisions, but appears to have decided that greater access to data trumps other considerations.

The idea that greater data availability is an unmitigated societal good is a dangerous one. While recognising the benefits data processing can bring, they must be balanced with individual and societal needs. The strategy’s framing of data as an untapped resource to be harvested for maximum economic benefit shows a worrying disregard for the potential harms to individuals or communities of people caused by greater data availability and fails to offer specific protections that are necessary for universal trust in a wider cultural shift towards a data-driven society. Children, that is anyone under the age of 18, have specific rights under the United Nations Convention on the Child (UNCRC), and specific Data Protections Rights under the ICO’s Children’s Code. The National Data Strategy must consider children’s needs, embody their existing rights, and make an explicit commitment to protect their rights to safety, privacy, and wellbeing.

The strategy puts overwhelming emphasis on greater data accessibility  and characterises existing protections as ‘barriers’ to the better use of data, considering user privacy and public trust only as an afterthought to maximising data sharing. The strategy’s primary focus must be on protecting and benefiting the individuals and communities whose data is being gathered and shared, rather than protecting the data itself. As Professor Mary Aiken rightly points out, “your data does not suffer from low self-esteem, self-harm or suicidal ideation.”

It is vital this strategy does not use the coronavirus pandemic or Britain’s departure from the European Union to bring in a new data regime that undermines existing protection to data privacy afforded by the Data Protection Act 2018. Nor should the strategy use the potential benefits of greater data availability as a justification to relax existing regulation protecting the data privacy of children as set out in the ICO’s Children’s Code. 

The government’s response to the consultation, which will be published in early 2021, is to be based on careful consideration of all submitted responses, including that of 5Rights. Subject to the consultation’s findings, further consultation may be necessary on the details of any potential changes to current framework strategy.

You can read the full consultation here.