A creditable approach?

Is the new UK government ‘privacy friendly’ after all? Some of the early signs have been very promising – from the headline-grabbing cancellation of the ID card programme onward – but the latest news out of Downing Street should start certain alarm bells ringing.

David Cameron’s announcement of a new ‘crackdown’ on benefit fraud might be politically simple and far from contentious on the surface – indeed, the early reports in various news sources focussed on the ideas that few could complain about, as ‘everyone’ knows that benefit fraud is ‘a bad thing’ – but the ideas that lie beneath the surface are potentially far more contentious, even dangerous. The key is the way that the ‘crackdown’ is to be performed: through the use of data from credit agencies. As Cameron put it “Why should government not use the same tools that are available to independent organisations?” Why indeed? Well, the one question begs another – are those tools, available to and used by independent organisations tools that should be used at all?

Credit agencies gather data on people and use that data to help other organisations make decisions that have a real, concrete impact on those people – and yet we really know very little about how they work and have very little control over how they work. What is clear is that they work through the gathering and analysing of data – data gathered from a whole variety of sources. Whether and how that data should be gathered and used is something that has not really been up for debate on a serious scale – and here we have David Cameron’s government simply assuming that the use of the data is OK, and indeed endorsing its use. More than that, they’re offering a potentially very lucrative contract to the credit agencies, offering even more incentive for them to gather more and more data about more and more people. Is that something that should be encouraged?

Benefit fraud has always been an easy target – one popular with politicians and tabloids alike – but is this just a starting point for more government use of this kind of data? And other kinds of data? A government who looked (and proclaimed itself to be) in favour of privacy and autonomy is taking quite the opposite approach with this announcement. Not a creditable approach at all.