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Privacy vs Data: Mutually Exclusive?

Is there an intersection between privacy and the right of the state to share data among agencies? This was an interesting counterpoint that emerged during a recent FutureGov Breakfast Briefing in Putrajaya, Malaysia on the topic of Data Centre Consolidation.

Like most of the participants at the briefing — which included 17 senior-level decision-makers in IT from every major arm of the Malaysian civil service — I was taken aback by the brute honesty of the question and its premise. On the surface, this seemed almost a facile question to ask; after all, governments across the globe routinely process millions of bits of data about their citizens lives everyday with nary a concern. One would assume that inter-agency data sharing to improve efficiency would be a welcomed — if not necessary — feature of government.

But at its core, the issue is prickly because it encroaches on a citizen’s right to privacy and his/her ownership of the data. No one questions, for example, if a national weather agency has the right to share vital information to help emergency services protect a citizen’s life and property but what about medical and criminal records?

Where do we draw the proverbial line?

In pragmatic and patriarchal Asia, the question is almost moot. Discussions around data privacy and its implications are rare, though most acknowledge that they are vital to building public trust.

In contrast, the United Kingdom announced plans in April this year to revive its plans to fast-track the licensing of data sharing among public sector agencies where it is currently prohibited. Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude argued legal complexities and mis-perceptions were hampering the effectiveness of the public sector employees − social workers, doctors, dentists, and the police − to do their jobs. The UK government was proposing measures to boost transparency in public services and “open data” collaborations between the public and private sectors.

The development has raised fears among civil liberty activists. How will the UK government prevent sensitive personal information from being arbitrarily used without consent? What mechanism will be in place to prevent such abuse?

As we learnt at the Breakfast Briefing, the technical hurdles to sharing the data are easily surmountable with the establishment of common data elements, the integration of different information systems, and more. But there was concern and lack of clarity in ensuring privacy controls to prevent abuse. Should Malaysia consider setting up a National Data Centre that could store and secure all data?

This would simplify the sharing of information for permits, medical records and help security agencies in their fight against crime. But is public trust with government sufficient security against data sharing abuses?

I am not entirely convinced that the broad sharing of personal information by government agencies is inimical to privacy and the rule of law. I don’t necessarily believe it will mean we have to give up our right to confidentiality and ultra vires.

But open data must start with open discussion with the very stakeholders whose information governments process everyday. In an era of data consolidation, information really is the new currency, and as an astute observer once said, the only true currency in a bankrupt world is what you share with someone else.

2 Comments

On 4 October 2012 Heather Morrison wrote:

The litmus test on information sharing has to be does sharing the information assist the agency to serve the individual and/or public interest. For example, when John Smith is imprisoned for theft it is totally appropriate and in his best interest for the prison system to have access to his health records so they can properly manage his asthma. However after his release it is not appropriate for the health system to know anything about his incarceration - it has no bearing on the treatment they should provide for any condition. Where information sharing promotes the interests of the individual, or serves to protect the public interest, it is appropriate for it to happen. However it should not be carte blanche, and the individual should have the right to refuse permission.


On 10 October 2012 Kris Dev wrote:

Privacy is paramount as long as it does not impinge on the privacy of others. Thus any data should be private unless it warrants public disclosure. Any data can be made secure to the owner similar to a bank locker with dual control of owner and custodian and yet made transparent to the public without identifying the owner (anonymity) unless warranted by a court order.

Just as in UK it is told, “A policeman is a citizen in uniform; and a citizen is a policeman out of uniform”.

Thus there should be no political or bureaucratic or judicial control and all citizens must be treated equally. Those in power, position and authority are also citizens holding those posts for a certain period of time. Thus they are first citizens and the law of citizens must apply.

A good electronic system can be made more secure and private than the present half baked systems of security and privacy. It should facilitate people and at the same time make the community become a watchdog to prevent wrong happenings. No one should be able to get away after doing a wrong, as is happening now.


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