2011 UK census can be a milestone in regulating data privacy

Ten years ago, Computer Weekly posed the question, “Will there ever be another paper-based census?” As we all wait to receive our paper census forms this month, little has changed in a decade that has seen enormous changes in technology.

At least the 2011 census will offer the option to complete the form online, but the question we asked in 2001 remains the same – given the amount of information stored about UK citizens on government databases, there must be a better way of gathering this information than spending £482m on the current process?

It sounds easy on paper (if you’ll pardon the phrase), but the issues are not technological. As more information about us has accumulated electronically, so the public awareness of data protection and online privacy has grown.

So if the relative lack of technical advancement in the census process demonstrates anything, it is that these key issues of how to make legitimate use of digital personal information have not been adequately tackled during the 10 years that have highlighted their importance.

Legislators and regulators continue to debate whether or not existing laws adequately protect our digital privacy in a world of ubiquitous online information sources, especially when so many new forms of behavioural data can now be gathered – from our search history to our Facebook relationships.

Yet at the same time, attitudes to privacy are undergoing a generational change. An older demographic may tut and say, “They’ll learn,” but young people are redefining the boundaries of acceptable use of personal data.

Perhaps this census should act instead as a catalyst for change. One would hope it won’t take until 2021 to resolve the privacy issue, but the census offers an obvious milestone from which to say that a solution has to be found.

The blurred regulatory boundaries within which we approach privacy do more harm than good and lead inevitably to the sort of PR blunders we have seen from Google and Facebook. But data is increasingly the lifeblood of business and government, and clear but workable boundaries need to be drawn.