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Expert perspectives on the UK data protection consultation

Thu Nov 11, 2021
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On 9 September 2021, the UK government published ‘Data: a new direction’, its proposals for reforming the UK’s data protection regime. The ambition of the proposed reforms is to secure the UK’s international position as a science superpower and data hub, to build on the unprecedented and life-saving use of data to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, and to overhaul the role of the Information Commissioner’s Office and the data responsibilities of businesses and other organisations.

The proposals are now out for consultation until Friday 19 November 2021, and organisations and individuals across the UK can respond with their evidence or perspectives to help shape how the proposed reforms are developed and implemented.

Roundtable discussions

Insights from expert roundtable discussions

The ODI convened three online roundtable discussions to synthesize expert evidence to inform our engagement with the consultation, and to support others with theirs.

As part of our participation in the National Data Strategy Forum, this month we had the opportunity to present the outcomes of these roundtables to the new Minister of State for Media, Data and Digital Infrastructure, Julia Lopez MP, alongside other forum attendees.  We’re also sharing detailed summaries of these roundtables here to support others’ engagement with the consultation.

Across all three roundtable discussions, a key recurring theme was around the importance of transparency and trust; it was also recognised that transparency is necessary but not sufficient, and should be accompanied by accountability and mechanisms for redress.

There was also recognition that harms and benefits from data policies and data practices can change over time, and that some harms and benefits are collective rather than individual. Therefore, a trustworthy data protection regime is one that protects communities as well as individuals, and that gives weight to the medium- and longer-term impacts of current actions.

Across all three roundtable discussions, there were also questions about whether legislative change was necessary, or whether it was the right kind of intervention needed to secure the benefits of a trusted data protection regime.

Health data and data for research

On 6 October 2021 the ODI collaborated with the Wellcome Trust  to convene a roundtable discussion to explore the proposals in Chapter 1 of ‘Data: a new direction’, around data for research. Health data is a particularly sensitive category of data, in terms of personally identifiable characteristics; health data is also a particularly strategic category of data for both national and international health security (for example, pandemic response), and for national and international economic security.  The roundtable participants were experts in managing research processes around health data, in both academia and the NHS, and so well placed to evaluate the possible impacts of the proposed reforms.

A key theme that emerged from this discussion was that the majority of attendees were sceptical about legislative change, and instead expressed a preference for improved guidance. However, some were open minded about legislative change if it could reduce administrative burdens on the NHS. The majority of attendees reported that they did not rely on ‘broad consent’ for a lawful basis for data processes for research: there was a strong emphasis on the importance of adherence to established research ethics protocols as a matter of research integrity. Consequently, roundtable attendees reported that seeking consent from informed and empowered data subjects is a matter of professional practice for the research community, rather than being only a matter of legal compliance, and so weakening the legal requirements around consent would be unlikely to change research practice (but might weaken public and patient trust in research). The majority of attendees did not want to risk data adequacy with the EU. A detailed summary of the discussion is available here.

Data for public services

On 12 October 2021 the ODI collaborated with the Institute for Government to convene a roundtable discussion to explore the proposals in Chapter 4 of ‘Data: a new direction’, around data for public services. Data sharing in government can lead to better public services and also unlock wider opportunities across society and the economy. And there may be lessons we can learn from how data was shared and used during the pandemic.  The roundtable participants were experts on government data from civil society, academia, and the private sector, and some public sector attendees with experience of data sharing in government.

A key theme that emerged from this discussion was that the law is not the main challenge to data sharing in government: the most salient challenges are around organisational culture, incentives, and data infrastructure, and around the availability of guidance, support and relevant tools. A related theme was that the law might not be the main opportunity for supporting data sharing in government, but might be a useful tool for strengthening redress mechanisms. Some believed that the problems with government data sharing are often simply problems of government; and while there was support for learning from pandemic experiences of data sharing in government, in terms of informing legislative change this was caveated by the importance of learning carefully because ‘hard cases make bad law’. A detailed summary of the discussion is available here.

Strategic opportunities and the long view

On 19 October 2021 the ODI convened a roundtable to explore the strategic and cross-cutting needs and opportunities that might not already be covered in the reform proposals and consultation questions. We considered differences between the current most influential data protection and data governance models – in particular the EU, the USA, and China – and whether or how the UK could chart a path that offered the international community a strategic alternative to these.

We also identified and explored three areas with key new developments for data protection frameworks: the future of data and digital services, the future of AI ethics, and the future of data rights. Roundtable attendees were senior figures from the UK government, academia, business and civil society, bringing expertise from several sectors, domains, disciplines and professions.

Roundtable attendees observed that for the future of data and digital services, it would be important to assure both the quality of data, and the integrity of data; it would also be important for policymakers to clarify an anchoring notion of ‘public good’ in the proposed new data protection regime. Considering the future of AI ethics, roundtable attendees commented on the importance of embracing principles-based regulation, and recognising that approaches or models from other fields (such as medical ethics) might not be appropriate templates for AI ethics. On the future of data rights, roundtable attendees explored the importance of holistic approaches across data ecosystems, and innovative approaches that could enhance data rights and privacy. A detailed summary of the discussion is available here.

Next steps

It’s not often a country changes its laws on data, and any change to data protection law will impact organisations and communities across the UK, and potentially further. So it is vital that these proposals are engaged with widely. We’ve published a mapper and explainer of the proposed reforms and the consultation questions to help others navigate the document. We also hope that the summaries from the expert roundtable discussions can also be a useful resource for others.

The consultation is open until Friday 19 November 2021, and we are preparing a response which we will also publish. You can read more about our engagement on our project webpage, or contact the team on [email protected]; we’ll also be sharing updates on Twitter: @ODIHQ.

Roundtable discussion summaries

  • Strategic opportunities and the long view

Read the detailed summary of the discussion on strategic opportunities and the long view

  • Health data and data for research

Read the detailed summary of the discussion on health data and data for research, in collaboration with Wellcome.

  • Data for public services

Read the detailed summary of the discussion on data for public services, in collaboration with the Institute for Government