The Data Protection Bill is extremely important. The digital age brings lots of opportunities but also lots of challenges, and we must grapple with the big questions of privacy in light of these rapidly changing times. When the existing Data Protection Act came into force in 1998, most people were still getting to grips with email, and sending a text message with your mobile phone was just emerging as the latest trendy way of communicating. Through Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter we share the deepest and most personal details of ourselves very freely with the world nowadays. So it is right that the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the new Data Protection Bill (DPB) are trying to grapple with these big issues. But I’m deeply unhappy about some of the things that the Government is trying to get away with.
The GDPR, a piece of EU law, brings in a robust set of new data protection rules with automatic effect. We, as individuals, can rely on the GDPR in our national courts and this will continue even after we leave the EU. In contrast, the main purpose of the new DPB, a piece of UK legislation, is to opt out of large parts of the EU rules. These opt outs include Henry VIII clauses which will allow the Government to change a whole raft of protections with little more than the stroke of a pen, with very little further scrutiny. However, an even bigger grievance for me is the Government’s attempt to remove data protection rights “for the maintenance of effective immigration control”.
The Government is trying to claim that removing data protection “for the maintenance of effective immigration control” is specific and targeted. But the Government’s stated immigration policy, often repeated by Theresa May, is to create a “hostile environment” for immigration. Immigration control isn’t just something that happens at the border any more; it now pervades our everyday lives. It’s why, when starting a new job or renting a new flat, you have to provide your passport. This makes employers and landlords the new immigration enforcement officers. Even hospitals and charities have to conduct ID checks. Far from being specific and targeted, immigration control is far and wide reaching. This watering down of data protection rules has very real implications not just for migrants, but for all of us.
Beyond the “soft” immigration enforcement, there’s the “hard” immigration enforcement which has developed an obscenely large catalogue of errors. The Home Office and its contractors have sent tens of thousands of incorrect messages to people telling them that they are in the UK illegally. Poor quality data has led to dozens of people being wrongly banned from opening bank accounts, with the Government’s own investigation finding that 10% of refusals are made in error. Yet all these cases, and more, would be exempt from the Data Protection rules which require personal data to be accurate and up to date.
So far, so bad. But it gets worse. A second exception in the Bill applies when data is processed for “the investigation or detection of activities that would interfere with effective immigration control”. This creates a virtually endless exception which could apply equally to the infringement of data protection for British nationals as much as migrants. For example, food banks could be said to “interfere with effective immigration control” if they might possibly provide food to people who do not have leave to remain in the UK. Equally, might using social media interfere with immigration control if someone could possibly communicate information about their immigration status? I’m sure all of us can think of dozens more examples which makes these exceptions outrageous.
The truth is that this is another bogeyman excuse being used by the Government to grant wholesale infringements on people’s privacy rights. They’ve managed to get away with it so far in the House of Lords – I just hope that enough people make a fuss to their MPs when the Bill moves on to the Commons so that we can have a Data Protection Bill that actually protects people’s data.
Jenny Jones is a Green Party member of the House of Lords.