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Labour MP Chi Onwurah warns of nationalisation risk to UK citizens' personal data

Shadow Cabinet Office minister Chi Onwurah calls on UK citizens to keep close tabs on how the government uses their personal data

Labour MP Chi Onwurah aired concerns about how the push to digitise government services could result in the “nationalisation” of the personal data the public sector holds on UK citizens.

Speaking at the Cloud World Forum event in London on 24 June 2015, shadow Cabinet Office minister Onwurah said that – as an increasing number of government services move online – work needs to be done to ensure the privacy rights of citizens are suitably protected.

“The Labour party believes that, when used properly – with proper concern for privacy, transparency and service design – technology can be a powerful tool and reshape how government and citizens interact with each other; but we need to establish the principles and need an approach to digital that embraces the unique role of the public sector in treating people as citizens, rather than consumers,” Onwurah said.

The government has the potential to be the most digital ever, she said, but it was important to ensure that principles such as data privacy and digital inclusion are not overlooked in the push to keep up with the latest technology.

"Tony Blair predicted that all government services would be 100% digitised by 2005. As is the case with flying cars and jet packs, we’re often much more over optimistic about the speed of change, but studies show we underestimate the profound effects of technology change on how we live our lives," she explained.

"That’s why I think it’s very important all of us – citizens, computer scientists, suppliers – to understand how technology will continuously change our lives, and the opportunities and challenges they will bring."

Nationalising personal data

She said citizens need to be mindful of the potential for the government to sell on the data the public sector holds about them and take steps to protect against this happening, as more services move online.

“Before the election, Labour committed to enabling citizens to own and control the data held on them by government. Public sector data shouldn’t be owned by government. It’s the people’s data. Let them have control of it, rather than have it left on the sidelines and hope the government doesn’t sell it to the highest bidder,” she said.

Onwurah said this was becoming a point of ever greater importance as personal data became one of the most "sought-after commodities" in the world, and forms the basis of an increasing number of private-sector business models.

"The government will face a series of choices around how it collects and treats our data in the future, and if we’re not vigilant, citizens will see their data nationalised away from them and they should be concerned by that," she concluded. 

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