Top officials from the government, including the chief executive of the civil service, John Manzoni and the interim director general of Government Digital Service (GDS) Alison Pritchard, have attempted to debunk claims that Whitehall is aiming to scoop up usage data from the GOV.UK portal for political purposes.
More than a week ago, BuzzFeed News ran a story claiming that Boris Johnson had ordered the Cabinet Office to secretly turn the government’s public internet service into a platform for “targeted and personalised information” to be gathered in the run-up to Brexit. It was allegedly labelled a top priority by Johnson and his chief adviser Dominic Cummings in emails to senior officials.
The report claimed that some government officials were concerned about both the amount of data to be transferred and the speed at which it is being asked to be transferred, behind closed doors, with one source sceptical about how the use of this data could help with Brexit preparations.
Privacy campaigners have suggested that such a move to pool user data would give GDS a detailed picture of citizens’ online interactions with government, and that this should only happen with public knowledge, while Labour has asked for clarity on how this data is going to be used.
At Sprint 19 today in London, Manzoni referred to the BuzzFeed News story when he said that that the data, despite some reports, would only be used in a circumspect way.
Meanwhile, in a separate briefing with media, Pritchard explained that while the government was working speedily on its data plans, it was not trying to do anything untoward with that data. She said:
Are we trying to do anything unexpected or more than you’d expect of any organisation that has a complex web portal in our approach – no absolutely not.
Pritchard said that the data gathered would be used to understand how GOV.UK services are working, and help the government tackle any issues in preparation for big events including Brexit. Pritchard added that GDS is working closely with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to ensure that all data protection considerations have been made.
Jen Allum, deputy director, head of GOV.UK, said that the goal of collecting data was always in the GDS’s plans – suggesting that while Johnson and Cummings may have pushed GDS and other departments to comply, it was already something that GDS was working on.
But while this may be the case, and while it is understandable that the government would want to better understand its users – the main concern was around the idea that Whitehall could combine the web tracking data with data that could identify individuals such as GOV Verify, essentially creating a database of citizens.
This is an idea that many within government – including former Prime Minister Theresa May – have pushed through time and time again in different guises, including the Snooper’s Charter and the concept of national ID cards. Sceptics believe this would give the government far too much control – and create a Big Brother effect on the UK.
But Pritchard said that this was not at all about having a national database.
This is about the journey in terms of the attributes rather than absolute identity.
Pritchard added that she was one of the last people to formally review the national ID card programme.
She said that while the government would draw on experience on how to handle the debate around data-gathering, this particular programme was not the same, but was instead about a trusted, responsive way of using services. Pritchard added:
We’re trying to work through the pace we’re doing these things and make sure that we’re abiding by regulations, given the policy intent that we have is – I think – sensible.
But I’m not naïve, I can see that this is a really difficult space to operate in, particularly when we’re working at pace to push through all of this stuff, and ensure that we’re doing it the proper way.
As well as a national database of sorts, there has been speculation that this joined up use of data could be used by Johnson and his party to target individuals – in the same way that people were allegedly targeted during the EU referendum.
But Allum said that while the government would invest in marketing to deliver awareness messages to help prepare people for Brexit, and then use data to confirm if they are actually taking action – this data would not form part of a database of information on citizens.
When asked if any of the joined-up data could be used to target individuals through Facebook advertising, for example, a GDS spokesperson said that it was “very compliant with all of the protection regime so that will not be happening”. They added:
This is literally about making the website as useful as possible, especially as we know thousands more people will be coming on to GOV.UK the closer we get to the end of October, so we need to make sure that everybody is working as well as possible so that people can find the information they need.