Call to relax laws on data sharing to boost the economy

digitalThe Government’s plan to put data at the heart of its economic growth strategy has been boosted by a new report which calls for a change in the law to create greater opportunities for data sharing between both private and public sector organisations.

Last month, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden outlined how he wanted the Information Commissioner’s Office to take a “bold new approach that capitalises on all we’ve learnt during the pandemic, which forced us to share data quickly, efficiently and responsibly for public good”.

He added that the new Commissioner (who will succeed Elizabeth Denham later this year) will be empowered to ensure people can use data to achieve economic and social goals.

Now a new 89-page report commissioned by DCMS, “Increasing Access to Data Across the Economy”, advocates a package of measures to smooth the path to greater data sharing.

These include improving knowledge and understanding of data sharing, improving or demonstrating incentives, supporting ways to address risk, reducing the cost of sharing, reducing the regulatory burden, and mandating data sharing”.

Consultancy Frontier Economics carried out the research alongside Cambridge economist Diane Coyle, who co-directs the university’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy.

The report states: “DCMS recognises that the full value of data held by organisations in the private and third sectors may not be unlocked without government intervention. Increasing access to and use of data has the potential to generate significant economic and social benefits, from increased productivity to supporting research and the delivery of public services.

“DCMS wants to ensure that decisions about appropriate policy interventions in this arena draw on the best available knowledge and evidence in order to focus on those areas where the returns from government action are expected to be highest.

“However, given the breadth of economic activity where additional data sharing may be beneficial, the array of issues that may prevent sharing, and the sparsity of the evidence base, these findings should be interpreted with caution.

“This study provides a starting point for the development of public policy in this area rather than a set of firm conclusions.”

However, the plans are likely to be resisted by consumer groups. Privacy International has already launched a campaign against what it called the “Covid-19 Power-Grab”.

In a blogpost, the organisation said: “In the rush to respond to Covid-19 and its aftermath, government and companies are exploiting data with few safeguards. PI is acting to ensure that this crisis isn’t abused.

“Tech companies, governments, and international agencies have all announced measures to help contain the spread of the Coronavirus. Some of these measures impose severe restrictions on people’s freedoms, including to their privacy and other human rights. Unprecedented levels of surveillance, data exploitation, and misinformation are being tested across the world.

“Many of those measures are based on extraordinary powers, only to be used temporarily in emergencies. Others use exemptions in data protection laws to share data. Some may be effective and based on advice from epidemiologists, others will not be. But all of them must be temporary, necessary, and proportionate.”

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