UK government accused of ‘harvesting citizen data’ ahead of Brexit

An Anti-Brexit protester sits outside the Houses of Parliament, Central London, Britain, 11 September 2019. [EPA-EFE/WILL OLIVER]

UK opposition parties have hit out at the government for allegedly harvesting user data, surreptitiously obtaining information from individuals accessing the official Gov.uk website, ahead of the UK’s scheduled withdrawal from the EU at the end of October.

A leaked memo seen by the Buzzfeed news website details private messages that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson shared with government ministers in the cabinet committee dealing with no-deal preparations, in which he informed them of the importance of gathering user information in order to facilitate exit preparations.

The Gov.uk website “is serving as a platform to allow targeted and personalised information to be gathered, analysed and fed back actively to support key decision-making – in effect, focused on generating the highest-quality analytics and performance data to support exit preparations,” the memo reportedly states.

“I expect everyone to act immediately to execute the above actions,” Johnson concludes the memo, sent to ministers on 19 August. Nine days later, Johnson’s chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, emailed senior officials to stress that this should be a “top priority”.

The news drew strong reactions from opposition parties on Wednesday (11 September), with the Liberal Democrats Brexit spokesperson Tom Brake writing to Elizabeth Denham, the head of the UK’s data protection authority, the Information Commissioner’s Office, in order to clarify what purposes the data may have actually been used for.

“If such permission had not been granted and data was fed back in this way, would this be a breach of their rights and data protection?” Brake asked.

“Will you be seeking to meet with No 10 and the cabinet office to confirm any such data transfer or analysis is within the law and, in particular, that the data will not be used by government to promote their political agenda or be exported to third party organisations such as the Conservative Party?” he added.

Meanwhile, deputy Labour leader Tom Watson also took the opportunity to vent his frustration at the news. Speaking to The Guardian, Watson said: “This centralised harvesting of citizen’s data is very suspicious. Why would Dominic Cummings say this was a top priority for the government, given the national crisis we are in? We need immediate assurances about what this data is going to be used for.”

However, a government spokesperson defended the actions of the Johnson administration on Wednesday, denying that anything untoward had taken place. “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,” they said.

“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.”

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