Whitehall private data sharing: joined up government or an accident waiting to happen?

The right of privacy and control of data is a hot topic at the moment. Google and other internet search providers are currently grappling with the far-reaching, well intentioned, but ultimately ludicrous ‘right to be forgotten’. And under proposals to be published by the Cabinet Office, personal information could be shared across Whitehall and government agencies in the not-too-distant future.

Under the proposals (reported in the Daily Telegraph), data including qualifications, financial history, criminal records and energy consumption would be shared across government departments and agencies in an effort to copy the customer analysis of the retail sector and improve the delivery of government services while reducing costs. The plans are expected to be unveiled in an autumn White Paper from the Cabinet Office and would fundamentally change the use of personal data by government, which has for years been subject to the Data Protection Act and prevented the sharing of personal information between departments and agencies.

On paper it sounds like such a good idea that it’s amazing it hasn’t already been done. The sharing of data would have the potential to ‘join-up’ government – such as identifying where individuals might need greater assistance from the State – while at the same time reducing costs. But like every good idea, it comes with great risks. As the Daily Telegraph noted, the government has in the past suffered high profile incidents of data being lost, sometimes in very public places. And despite the likes of Liberty and Big Brother Watch having apparently been consulted on the proposals, many people will be naturally nervous about the idea of an unknown number of Whitehall figures having access to information on their lives.

The other concern is one of technology, which is how the data systems of different government departments and agencies will be joined up. The government has a frankly lamentable record on large scale IT projects, which have kept Margaret Hodge and her fellow Public Accounts Committee members busy for years. There will be enormous pressure on the Cabinet Office to ensure that this initiative doesn’t go the same way as the likes of Universal Credit or the NHS 111 service, the technical infrastructure of which has been plagued with delays and increasing costs.

The principles behind the idea are sound, but if the execution is anything less than flawless then expect the government to face considerable criticism from the public, privacy groups, and of course Mrs Hodge. It might not be as headline grabbing as hospitals and schools, nor will it be the matter that determines the general election, but the Cabinet Office’s proposals will still potentially affect every UK resident and will be closely scrutinised.