show image

Lord Clement-Jones

Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on AI

Don’t trade away our valuable national data assets

Data is at the heart of the global digital economy, and the tech giants hold vast quantities of it.

The Centre for European Policy Studies think tank recently estimated that 92 per cent of the western world’s data is now held in the US. The Cisco Global Cloud Index estimates that by 2021, 94 per cent of what are called workloads and compute instances will be processed by cloud platforms, whilst only 6 per cent will be processed by traditional data centres . This will potentially lead to vast concentrations of data being held by a very few cloud vendors (which will predominantly be AWS, Microsoft, Google and Alibaba).

NHS data in particular is a precious commodity especially given the many transactions between technology, telecoms and pharma companies concerned with NHS data. In a recent report the professional services firm EY estimated the value of NHS data could be around £10bn a year in the benefit delivered.

The Department for Health and Social Care is preparing to publish its National Health and Care Data Strategy this Autumn, in which it is expected to prioritise the “Safe, effective and ethical use of data-driven technologies, such as artificial intelligence, to deliver fairer health outcomes”. Health professionals have strongly argued that free trade deals risk compromising the safe storage and processing of NHS data.

We must ensure that it is the NHS, rather than the US tech giants and drug companies, that reap the benefit of all this data. Last year, it was revealed that pharma companies Merck, Bristol Myers Squibb and Eli Lilly paid the government for licences costing up to £330,000 each, in return for anonymised health data.

Harnessing the value of healthcare data must be allied with ensuring that adequate protections are put in place in trade agreements if that value isn’t to be given or traded away.

There is also the need for data adequacy to ensure that personal data transfers to third countries outside the EU are protected, in line with the principles of the GDPR. In July, in the case of Schrems II, the European Court of Justice ruled that the privacy shield framework which allows data transfers between the US, the UK and the EU was invalid. That has been compounded by the recent ECJ judgement this month in the case brought by Privacy International.

The European Court of Justice’s recent invalidation of the EU/US Privacy Shield also cast doubt on the effectiveness of Standard Contractual Clauses (SCCs) as a legal framework to ensure an adequate level of data protection in third countries – with the European Data Protection Board recommending that the determination of adequacy be risk assessed on a case by case basis by data controllers.

Given that the majority of US cloud providers are subject to US surveillance law, few transfers based on the SCC’s are expected to pass the test. This will present a challenge for the UK government, given the huge amounts of data it is storing with US companies.

There is a danger however that the UK will fall behind Europe and the rest of the world unless it takes back control of its data and begins to invest in its own cloud capabilities.

There is a common assumption that apart from any data adequacy issues, data stored in the UK is subject only to UK law. This is not the case. In practice, data may be resident in the UK, but it is still subject to US law. In March 2018, the US government enacted the Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data (CLOUD) Act, which allows law enforcement agencies to demand access to data stored on servers hosted by US-based tech firms, such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft and Google, regardless of the data’s physical location and without issuing a request for mutual legal assistance.

NHSX for example has a cloud contract with AWS. AWS’s own terms and conditions do not commit to keeping data in the region selected by government officials if AWS is required by law to move the data elsewhere in the world.

Key (and sensitive) aspects of government data, such as security and access roles, rules, usage policies and permissions may also be transferred to the US without Amazon having to seek advance permission. Similarly, AWS has the right to access customer data and provide support services from anywhere in the world.

The Government Digital Service team, which sets government digital policy, gives no guidance on where government data should be hosted – it simply states that all data categorised as “Official” (the vast majority of government data, but including law enforcement, biometric and patient data) is suitable for public cloud and instructs its own staff simply to “use AWS” with no guidance given on where the data must be hosted. The costs of AWS services varies widely depending on the region selected and the UK is one of the most expensive “regions”. Regions are physically selected by the technical staff, rather than procurement or security teams.

So the procurement of data processing and storage services must also be considered as carefully as the way Government uses data.  A break down in public trust in the Government’s ability to secure their data due to hacks, foreign government interventions and breaches in data protection regulation would deprive us of the full benefits of using cloud services and stifle UK investment and innovation in data handling.

It follows if we are to obtain the maximum public benefit from our data we need to hold government to account to ensure that they aren’t simply handing contracts to suppliers, such as AWS, who are subject to the CLOUD act. And specifically we need to ensure genuine sovereignty of NHS data and that it is monetised in a safe way focused on benefitting the NHS and our citizens.

With a new National Data Strategy in the offing there is now the opportunity for the government to maximise the opportunities afforded through the collection of data and position the UK as leader in data capability and data protection. We can do this and restore credibility and trust through:

  • Guaranteeing greater transparency of how patient data is handled, where it is stored and with whom and what it is being used for
  • Appropriate and sufficient regulation that strikes the right balance between credibility, trust, ethics and innovation
  • Ensuring service providers that handle patient data operate within a tight ethical framework
  • Ensuring that the UK’s data protection regulation isn’t watered down as a consequence of Brexit
  • Making the UK the safest place in the world to process and store data

In delivering this last objective there is a real opportunity for government to lead by example – not just the UK, but the rest of the world by developing its own sovereign data capability. A UK national cloud capability based on technical, ethical, jurisdictional and robust regulatory standards would be inclusive, multi-vendor by nature, and could be available for government and industry alike.

A UK cloud could create a huge national capability by enabling collaboration through data and intelligence sharing. It would underpin new industries in the UK based on the power of data, bolster the UK’s national security, grow the economy and bolster the exchequer.

As a demonstration of what can be done, in October 2018, Angela Merkel announced Gaia-X, following warnings from German law makers and industry leaders that Germany is too dependent on foreign-owned digital infrastructure. The initiative aims to restore sovereignty to German data and address growing alarm over the reliance of industry, governments and police forces on US cloud providers. Gaia-X has growing support in Europe and EU member states have made a joint declaration on cloud, effectively the development of an EU cloud capability.

Retention of control over our publicly generated data, particularly health data, for planning, research and innovation is vital if the UK is to maintain the UK’s position as a leading life science economy and innovator and that is where as part of the new Trade Legislation being put in place clear safeguards are needed to ensure that in trade deals our publicly held data is safe from exploitation except as determined by our own government’s democratically taken decisions.

Tim, Lord Clement-Jones is the former Chair of the House of Lords Select Committee on AI and Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on AI.