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Government departments sign up to web data-sharing plan

All but four Whitehall departments have so far agreed to share web analytics data to allow the government to monitor user behaviour across the Gov.uk domain

Thirteen out of 17 Whitehall departments have so far agreed to share web analytics data with the Government Digital Service (GDS) as part of plans for the Gov.uk website to offer personalised services to citizens.

GDS wants to gather data centrally on the performance of Gov.uk to offer more joined-up services by better understanding what information users want. The government uses Google Analytics to track user behaviour, but GDS did not previously have access to data across the whole of the Gov.uk domain.

The plans attracted some controversy after a Buzzfeed News report last month revealed a leaked document from 10 Downing Street that suggested the government was looking to combine the anonymous web analytics with personal data from GDS’s Verify digital identity system to be able to target Brexit messaging to citizens as they access government websites.

The Cabinet Office has since insisted there is “nothing sinister” about the project, adding that it is standard practice for website owners to use Google Analytics data to improve performance.

But Labour MP Mary Creagh submitted a series of parliamentary questions to ministers seeking to find out more about the plans.

In response, the Cabinet Office minister for implementation, Simon Hart – who is responsible for GDS – revealed which departments have so far agreed to share data about their Gov.uk web pages.

“We are using clear and robust memorandums of understanding (MoUs) to set out the terms of the project,” said Hart’s written answer. “The MoUs outline the responsibilities of both the GDS and departments in a number of areas, including handling the relevant data to ensure there is no unauthorised access, loss, misuse, modification or disclosure.

“The MoUs were sent to the following departments: the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Department for Education (DfE), the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU), the Department for Transport (DfT), the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC), the Home Office, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), HM Treasury (HMT), the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), the Department for International Trade (DfID), the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Cabinet Office (CO) and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

“We have received signed MoUs from all departments apart from FCO, CO, DWP and DCMS as we are still working through some points of detail to facilitate their response.”

Hart also confirmed that GDS will publish the MoUs “in due course”.

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Creagh also asked for details of how the web data will be secured to prevent unauthorised access, to which Hart replied: “Different types of data and information are stored in different ways in accordance with our information assurance policies. In relation to the specific project to join up performance analytics across the Gov.uk estate, GDS has created a separate account within its existing Google Analytics account to hold the anonymised performance data collected from Gov.uk services managed by other government departments. Data within the two accounts is not linked together.”

Hart added that only civil servants with suitable security clearance will be allowed to access the data, and that the data is stored and transmitted in an encrypted format.

The MoUs are required under the terms of the Digital Economy Act (DEA) of 2017, which governs the circumstances under which public bodies can share data.

GDS director general Alison Pritchard said last month that the data-gathering plan was nothing more than straightforward website best practice.

“Are we trying to do anything more than you’d expect any organisation that has a complex web portal? No, absolutely not,” she said.

“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.”

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