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ICO urges transparency over GOV.UK data plan

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has reminded the government of its responsibilities under privacy laws after it emerged that Boris Johnson and his advisor Dominic Cummings have orchestrated a plan to harvest data from GOV.UK.

Minutes and emails leaked to BuzzFeed News reveal that the prime minister and his most senior aide have called for civil servants to share data about usage of their divisions of the GOV.UK website in order to inform Brexit preparations.

The leaks also indicate that the government is seeking to accelerate adoption of Verify, a digital identify platform for public services, as part of plans to transform the way citizens interact with government.

On 19 August, Johnson told the government’s EU exit operations committee that the Government Digital Service (GDS) had been tasked with “developing — in cooperation with others — a digital identity accelerated implementation plan and I would ask you all to engage in that work urgently”. GDS, Johnson added, is also turning GOV.UK into a “platform to allow targeted and personalised information to be gathered, analysed and fed back actively to support key decision making”.

It’s not clear what kind of data the government plans to harvest from its public facing website or how it may be used, but Johnson appears keen to increase the number of people signing up for Verify accounts. “The greater the volume of data structured through personalised ID, the more impact the outcome,” he said. “Steps that Government can take to increase the volume now whilst continuing to deliver critical services, must be looked at.”

GDS already uses use cookies and Google Analytics to monitor how users arrive at the site, the pages they visit and what they click on.

Privacy experts have criticised the culture of secrecy surrounding the government’s plans. A spokesperson for the ICO told NS Tech“People should be able to make informed choices about the way their data is used. That’s why organisations have to ensure that they process personal information fairly, legally and transparently. When that doesn’t happen, the ICO can take action.”

A spokesperson for the government said: “Across the industry, it is normal for organisations to look at how their websites are used to make sure they provide the best possible service.

“Individual government departments currently collect anonymised user data when people use GOV.UK. The Government Digital Service is working on a project to bring this anonymous data together to make sure people can access all the services they need as easily as possible.

“No personal data is collected at any point during the process, and all activity is fully compliant with our legal and ethical obligations.”