How Gov aimed to exploit personal data trade

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The £3bn trade in tip-offs about people caught in car accidents has exposed the seedy side of the personal data market. Seedier still are draft government plans to cash in on this bonanza when it ought to be sticking to the Tory manifesto promise to give people a right to call the shots over their own personal data.

Plans to replace Labour's ID scheme with a private sector system of identity assurance, which Computer Weekly revealed Cabinet Office had floated to industry in April, have led inevitably to a proposal for the private sector to become more active as custodians of people's personal data as well. This is already happening to a large extent but, much to people's dismay, the private sector seems less interested in being custodian than exploiter.

In the Cabinet Office plan, British citizens would be represented by electronic identity and attribute agents (attribute being jargon for an item of personal data) in a "marketplace in trusted data provision."

"The 'trusted attribute service' economy is based on the exchange of attributes (aka claims) which are data items from a trusted source relating to an authenticated individual," said the Cabinet Office draft technical blueprint.

"They also provide a mechanism for third parties to expose such data, and operate in a market for that service," it said.

It went on to say how government could cash in on the billions already being made in the market for personal data. The idea was that people build a network of trusted relationships online and personal data supplied from members of their network can be assembled in combinations of ever-greater numbers of attributes to meet higher and higher levels of security clearance. Companies providing that data could charge for it, like police forces and insurance companies have been charging ambulance chasers for tip-offs when people are caught in a car accident.

"Government attribute providers" would under the Cabinet Office plan exist in all major government departments and feed personal data about the citizens in their charge to private sector identity and attribute agents.

"Possible examples" of data the government could trade included "nationality", the "right to work", and verification of national insurance and driving licence numbers.

"The government could potentially charge the private sector for this service," said the draft plan.

That might simply involve verification of data: whether someone is a benefit claimant or a disqualified director, or a confirmation of their nationality. In the virtual world, a yes/no answer is indistinguishable from the actual transmission of a string of data such as: "unemployed, disqualified director, from Jamaica".

These were draft plans presented for discussion. Though it is not unknown for the government to trade in people's data. DWP had for example been giving BT access to its national insurance database under arrangements that have not been disclosed.

The Cabinet Office Identity Assurance Scheme could not rely on a private sector ID market if it did not engage in actual exchange of personal data with private sector providers. The draft plan proposes people should have control over the trade in their data. But it is tempered by a warning that this may not always be possible.

That, as has been demonstrated by the example of the insurance scam, is the element of the coalition government's private sector ID scheme set to match in dread Labour's Big Brother: a market in which people's "attributes" are traded in such a frenzy that it inflates prices, leading people to be fleeced simply for being "known", pestered by vultures like ambulance chasers, and with who knows what other unforeseen consequences.

An answer to this problem has been proposed by the personal data model government has piloted at Brent and other councils, and with which the DWP and Cabinet Office have been closely involved.

That is the Mydex model, in which people are given the means to control their own personal data in their own personal agent: deciding who gets to see it, who gets to use it and on what terms. It would even give people the means to flog their own data, making them the primary agents in any market.

If that sounds too good to be true, its because the market is already getting carried away with itself. Banks are getting in on the act, as if early evidence hasn't already shown how the personal data market can inflate to the detriment of ordinary people without their help.

The government needs to act quickly to carry its pre-election promises on civil liberties to their logical conclusion. That does not mean making a song and dance about dismantling Labour's ID scheme only to throw everyone's identities to the dogs in the private sector. That means ensuring people have the means to control their own personal data, wherever and however it is held.

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