The University of Southampton

ECS researcher recommends practical steps towards public transparency

Published: 13 September 2011

The UK Cabinet Office has published an independent review on privacy and transparency by a researcher from ECS-Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton.

Dr Kieron O'Hara, Senior Research Fellow in the ECS Web and Internet Science Group, was commissioned in December 2010 to investigate the effect that the UK government's transparency programme would have on the privacy of the citizen. O'Hara's report, 'Transparent Government, Not Transparent Citizens' is published today (13 September).

The government is trying to open up its data for use by citizens and entrepreneurs, but concerns have been raised about the privacy implications of the programme. Public data does not include personal data, but it is hard to insulate data about government from data about citizens. For example, data about hospitals may have implications about patients; crime maps may be used to identify victims of crime. To prevent this happening, the government anonymises the data it releases.

O'Hara is keen for the transparency programme to succeed. "I think it will revolutionise government," he argues. "Yet it is vital that citizens' privacy is preserved. The transparency programme depends on public confidence, but if people feel it threatens their privacy they will withdraw their trust. Privacy therefore needs to be embedded into the programme as a whole, not just as a bolt-on at the end."

O'Hara interviewed over 30 experts, campaigners and stakeholders, and consulted representatives of more than a dozen government departments and agencies. "It was a bit of a slog at times," he says, "but worth it to understand the breadth of opinion, and strength of feeling, on the issue. Many people are worried by the implications for citizens' privacy, quite reasonably. Others are keen to take advantage of the opening up of government, to make public services more efficient and responsive, and to develop services of their own. It can be a difficult circle to square."

One important issue that arose was the possibility that hackers could re-identify people from anonymised data. "Expert opinion is really split about this," says O'Hara, "and we really lack evidence about how practical the techniques are for doing it. One of my 14 recommendations is that the government commits resources to investigating the real-world threat of re-identification, and I'm hopeful that some steps will be taken in that direction. In general, I've tried to recommend practical administrative steps that the government can take to minimise the risk that government transparency will have deleterious effects on citizens."

O'Hara's investigations have already given him valuable experience, which is being put to use; he has been appointed Chair of the Transparency Sector Panel for Crime and Criminal Justice Data, which scrutinises and advises the Home Office and Ministry of Justice in data publication. ______

For further information on this news story contact Joyce Lewis; tel.+44(0)23 8059 5453.

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