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House of Commons Science and Technology Committee calls for Data Ethics Council

House of Commons select committee on Science and Technology publishes its report into the promise and pitfalls of big data, advocating a data ethics council and more urgency on data privacy

 The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee has published the report of its 2015 inquiry into big data, calling for “urgent action on the digital skills crisis” and on “overcoming public distrust over data sharing”.

It calls, among other things, for the establishment of a Council of Data Ethics in the Alan Turing Institute to address “well founded” public concern about privacy and security.

The committee, chaired by Conservative member of Parliament Nicola Blackwood, states its disagreement with the government that current UK data protection regulations can be left until the European Union (EU) Data Protection Regulation comes into force.

Blackwood said: “A Council of Data Ethics should be created to explicitly address [personal data] consent and trust issues head on. The government must signal that it is serious about protecting people’s privacy by making the identifying of individuals by de-anonymising data a criminal offence.”

The report urges the government to introduce “a criminal penalty for malicious data protection breaches by commencing sections 77 and 78 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008”. The government should not, says the report, regard the two-year implementation period of the EU Data Protection Regulation as a reason for delay.

It also advocates the urgent adoption of the information commissioner’s “data protection kitemark” as a complement to penalties.

Government must gain trust around data

The report, which describes the UK as “a world leader in big data research”, broadly examines the tension between commercialising and protecting citizen data.

It notes that 58,000 jobs could be created and £216bn contributed to the UK economy (2.3% of GDP) over a five-year period. But it warns that companies are analysing just 12% of their data.

It urges the government to clarify its interpretation of the EU’s data regulation on the reuse and de-anonymisation of personal data, introducing changes to the 1998 Data Protection Act to strike a balance between “the benefits of processing data and respecting people’s privacy concerns”.

The committee took written submissions from 81 organisations, including Alzheimer’s Research UK, Barclays, a slew of government departments, and IT suppliers EMC, Microsoft and SAP, and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.

IT industry trade body techUK also made written and oral submissions to the enquiry. In a statement it said: “the Committee … echoes concerns raised by techUK relating to the need to solve the big data skills gap, by ensuring a domestic talent pipeline and a smart migration policy. The report echoes our call for a clear and workable data protection legal framework and the importance of addressing consumer data trust and confidence concerns”.

Among the report’s conclusions are that the government should play a “substantial role” in the development of data analytics skills in businesses and increase “big data training” for civil servants.

It calls on the government to set out a strategy for big data infrastructure development and to put in place a framework for auditing government data quality, to be overseen by the Government Digital Service (GDS) and the Office for National Statistics.

Access for patients to health records

The report identifies healthcare data as especially sensitive, and declares another failure from the same stable as to be unaffordable.

“Patients and GPs are more likely to be content for their personal data to be used for healthcare and medical research if the benefits are clearly explained and adequate safeguards are in place,” it said.

The committee said: “The government should take careful account of the lessons from a similar, successful, scheme in Scotland. To help bring patients onside and to streamline healthcare across different NHS providers – hospitals, GPs, pharmacists and paramedics – it should give them easy online access to their own health records”. 

Big data one of the great eight technologies

The report follows through on a November 2014 report from the same parliamentary committee on the responsible use of social media data.

Big data was one of the “eight great technologies” identified by the coalition government, which also featured green IT. Those two together were allotted £189m of a £600m package, announced by then minister for universities and science David Willetts in January 2013.

Big data is defined by the committee as “ways of handling data sets so large, dynamic and complex that traditional techniques are insufficient to analyse their content”.

The coalition government promoted the big data theme by announcing and supporting the Alan Turing Institute with £42m in March 2014, as an institute for data science.

The Alan Turing Institute is headquartered at The British Library in London, under the collective umbrella of the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, UCL, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. It is this institute that the report says should house the proposed Council of Data Ethics.

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