The government has acknowledged that personal citizen information it scoops up can be “knowingly or deliberately de-anonymised” by wrongdoers.
In an effort to tackle what will become a growing issue once the Digital Economy Bill passes into law, the department for culture, media, and sport said it plans to carry out a review of data protection offences.
However, critics will continue to question why the government has failed to include safeguards on the protection of citizen data on the face of the draft legislation—which is currently at report stage in the House of Lords.
The DCMS confirmed its plans in a fluffy digital strategy policy paper released on Wednesday morning that was peppered with promises that have already been made by ministers.
It comes just weeks after the cabinet office published its long-awaited digital strategy paper, which—once again—pledged to improve access to online public services, while also shining a little light on Downing Street’s move to crack open citizen data across government and beyond.
Ars asked the DCMS to clarify details of the planned review. A spokesperson said:
All data protection sanctions and offences are currently being reviewed by government as part of the implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation [GDPR], which will take effect in the UK in May 2018.
The commitment in the digital strategy to introduce stronger sanctions for deliberate and negligent re-identification of anonymised data will form part of that review.
Digital minister Matt Hancock has previously said that the government would implement the GDPR “in full”—a vow repeated in the DCMS’ digital strategy, which highlights concerns about the transfer of data between the UK and European Union once Brexit kicks in.
“As part of our plans for the UK’s exit from the EU, we will be seeking to ensure that data flows remain uninterrupted, and will be considering all the available options that will provide legal certainty for businesses and individuals alike,” it said.
Britain’s data watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office, toldthat the DCMS was leading a review of data protection offences. It declined to comment, however, on how such a review might affect the controversial Part 5 of the Digital Economy Bill.
“We welcome the DCMS digital strategy, which highlights the important link between trust, data protection, and digital growth,” the ICO said. “We also welcome the government’s commitment to review data protection offences and possibly strengthen sanctions deliberate and negligent re-identification of anonymised data and we will continue to work with them on that.”
Patient records and citizen ID
The policy paper bangs the drum on “HealthTech” and adds that the government wants a “health and care system that is paper-free at the point of care by 2020.” Someone might want to mention this to the UK’s health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who recently admitted that setting a deadline for such an enormous task was foolhardy.
And, the DCMS also confirms, as recently reported by, an open secret about HMRC’s cold-shoulder treatment of the Government Digital Service’s gaffe-prone Verify citizen ID system. It said:
GDS will help departments use the identity assurance capabilities provided by GOV.UK Verify along with other cyber security techniques to make sure that government transactions can be completed wholly electronically.
We will also work across government to determine the best next steps for other forms of identity (such as verification of intermediaries and businesses) and which parts of government would be best placed to lead on this.
The DCMS is now clearly also piling on pressure to prevent the cabinet office from trying to peddle its Verify system via HMRC. It would seem the government is anything but “joined up” on this fiery issue.
But this isn’t really a strategy—it’s a “framework” for digital policy
The DCMS confessed in the “executive summary” of its policy paper—which is largely a rehash of previously announced government plans for the UK’s “digital economy”—that it is a “framework” to allow businesses to lobby for what they think a digital Britain should look like. It said:
We want to hear how government and industry can collaborate to enable growth in new sectors of the future that emerge around new technologies and new business models.
This digital strategy is therefore a first statement in an ongoing conversation between digital businesses and government: as we develop our industrial and digital strategies, we will continue to build on that conversation and to strengthen our support.
It’s pretty nebulous, then. Promises of taxpayer funds for AI, robotics, and other so-called “emerging” tech are just that for now. And it’s also clear that Brexit looms large over the government’s policy paper.
Next week, chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond will deliver his first Budget to MPs. And there will be—the DCMS says—more details on the government’s previously announced broadband infrastructure plans to plug £400 million into “full fibre” connections in the UK. It follows on from a consultation process that was published during the quiet, turkey-laden period between Christmas and New Year. Similarly, Hammond will also unveil Whitehall’s 5G strategy during his Budget speech, we’re told.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the DCMS doesn’t yet have the talent in place to promote its policy to citizens, businesses, and naysayers. The department, headed up by culture secretary Karen Bradley, recently advertised for two senior Whitehall mandarins to “play a major role in influencing sectors of industry that are of primary importance to the UK economy.”
The DCMS wants to fill two posts: telecoms director and digital economy director. The job ad offered salaries of between £87,000 and £120,000 “dependent on skills and experience.” But policy on areas that prime minister Theresa May “has a keen interest in” have seemingly been developed before the DCMS has hired the right experts for the job.
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