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Government insists 'nothing sinister' about web user data gathering

Government Digital Service responds to allegations that personal data gathered through Gov.uk portal could be used to target political messaging to citizens

Government officials have insisted there is “nothing sinister” in plans to gather user information through the Gov.uk website to help deliver more personalised digital services to citizens.

Alison Pritchard, director general of the Government Digital Service (GDS), which runs Gov.uk, said the project to analyse web traffic alongside other user data is purely intended to offer more joined-up services by better understanding what information users want.

“Are we trying to do anything more than you’d expect any organisation that has a complex web portal? No, absolutely not,” she said, in a media briefing at GDS’s Sprint 19 conference in London.

“I’m satisfied that the policy intent we’re trying to achieve is absolutely right. It’s the ability to really understand how these [online] services are working, how we can tackle any issues that we know in preparation of EU exit, and which we should be tackling rather than not knowing by virtue of not having data joined up.”

A report by Buzzfeed News last week revealed a leaked document from 10 Downing Street that seemed to suggest the government was looking to combine the anonymous web analytics behind Gov.uk with personal data from GDS’s Verify digital identity system to be able to target messaging to citizens as they access government websites.

The leaked memo suggested that prime minister Boris Johnson had urged departments to prioritise this work before 31 October, when the UK is due to leave the EU – a move that many observers interpreted as political. The Information Commissioner's Office subsequently asked the government to provide further details of the data collection plan to make sure it complies with data protection laws.

But GDS insists that this is work that has long been underway, and the need to deliver timely and accurate information to individuals and businesses in preparation for Brexit was the only reason for any added urgency.

“It has been in our plans for some time, and much of our work on Brexit has brought forward the need for stuff we already knew we needed to do,” said head of Gov.uk Jen Allum.

“For those who would question what we’re doing, there are also many others who are saying, ‘I can’t believe that it’s not already like that, so that you understand the comprehensive view of activity’.”

Pritchard cited the example of the government’s Brexit checker service, which aims to help people and businesses understand how they might be affected by leaving the EU.

She said that delivering services that are “joined-up, trusted, and responsive” means using web data to identify people who may need related information and ensuring they are guided towards what they need to know.

“We have a need to think about the broader [Brexit awareness] campaign, which also involves television, radio, etc, so there’s an intuitive journey around understanding how prepared, for instance, businesses really are, and whether they’re engaging with the services needed. And so it’s that sense of making sure that we’re able to refine how we are reaching the various different stakeholder groups,” said Pritchard.

“We’re talking about promoting ethical and maybe political considerations, through to achieving what is a very sensible goal. In effect, this is where we are at the moment and trying to work through at pace. Making sure that we are abiding by regulation, given the policy intent we have is quite reasonable and sensible.

“But I’m not naïve. I can see how this is a really difficult space to operate in, particularly when we’re working at pace, you have to push through on this stuff, but make sure that you’re doing it in a proper way. I understand the debate.”

In his keynote speech to Sprint 19, Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden touched on the concerns raised, without specifically mentioning the Buzzfeed News article. He said that improved online services would free up civil servants’ time and save taxpayers’ money, highlighting work underway to integrate services, data and information around key life events, such as having a baby.

“The aim should be, in the next stage of digital transformation, how can we achieve that seamless digital experience? Our offering should be tailored to audiences, whether citizens, businesses or charities. It should serve people in a proactive and responsive way. The prize of achieving this is enormous. It means creating a better experience for users… and huge savings for taxpayers,” said Dowden.

“Users really deserve to have a seamless, tailored experience, and joining up the random data sets is an important step in that transformative journey.”

Allum said there are controls in place to prevent misuse of data gathered through Gov.uk, to ensure it cannot be used for potentially political purposes, such as targeting web visitors with advertising on Facebook.

“There is a spectrum that we have to be able to support, and there is one concern around retargeting marketing, for example, which we are not doing. There is a difference between why someone needs to come [to the website], and people who need to prepare for a major event for this country. When marketing money is being spent to deliver awareness messages [to people], we need to ensure they are actually taking action,” she said.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said all the work is compliant with data protection laws.

“This is about trying to make the website as usable as possible. The Brexit angle is because we know we’re going to have thousands more people coming on to Gov.uk as we get closer to the end of October. We need to make sure that it’s working as well as possible so people find the information they need. There is nothing sinister happening,” they said.

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