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What does the government know about you - and have they got it right?

Personal data is now used not only to deliver but to deny services, so it's more important than ever to check what's on your records. Here's how.

Image: Jeremy Keith/Flickr, CC 2.0.

Quite apart from the appalling mistreatment of generations of people, the Windrush scandal highlighted two deep problems about government’s handling of personal data. It confirms the government’s default position is one of disbelief – “guilty until proven innocent”, for some groups at least. And it also confirms that – despite years of experience of the consequences, the government remains utterly cavalier in its stewardship of your data.

From the Home Office hunting people down through their NHS data and their children’s school records, to Google DeepMind’s secret deal intending to feed 1.6 million Royal Free Hospital patient records to its Artificial Intelligence project to Job Centre bosses interfering in medical records, and the Department for Education packaging up students’ personal data for private exploitation – as many have learned, “the power of data” is not always benign.

Whether destroying the Windrush generation’s vital records or losing 25 million people’s records in the post, the consequences of poor information handling practices by Departments of the database state are always damaging to citizens.

Concerns will only grow greater, and affect more people, as new laws to legitimise official re-use of citizens’ data come into force; powers that mean whatever information governments holds – from wherever it was collected, and for whatever ostensible purpose – can be used for an ever- escalating number of other purposes from now on.

Given that data is used not only to deliver but to deny services, it is more important than ever to know what government knows about you, and how it is using it.

Home-grown regulations or ‘codes of practice’ will continue to be the enablers of a whole series of data scandals of care.data proportions. And there’s no evidence to suggest citizens in 2018 and beyond will like such “surprises” any more than they did back in 2009, when Ministers of a previous Government proposed almost identical measures.

The Government uses “ethics” to justify whatever it is that officials wanted to do in the first place – no tyrant ever failed to justify their crimes. And, while citing subjective ‘ethics’, it is notable that Government obligations under the Rule of Law don’t merit a mention. How positively Trumpian...

We already have laws, and clearly defined rights, that (should) protect us from intrusion and abuse – so why such an effort to frame things in terms of ‘ethics’?

We have a proliferation of strategies based on yet more exploitation in the name of “innovation” – a UK Digital Strategy, a Government Transformation Strategy, a Digital Charter, an Industrial Strategy, a Life Sciences Industrial Strategy and ‘Grand Challenges’, and soon a new National Data Strategy, “to unlock the power of data in the UK economy and government, while building public confidence in its use”. But so much of what is already being done with your most sensitive personal data is, as the partial list in my second paragraph above indicates, unlawful, if not downright illegal.

Officials assume whatever story their computers contain must be true, and leave it up to you to convince them otherwise – including where they’ve destroyed the very documentation that only they had, that you need to cite.

If the Home Office decided to upend your life tomorrow, the Windrush scandal has exposed that its policy appears to be to assume that all ‘evidence’ you provide is false. So what would happen to you?

How many mistakes has Government made in your records already? And do you want to correct them, before it’s too late?

Check your data today

Using currently available tools, this is how you can find out what activity history DWP, HMRC and DVLA hold on you. (These are the places that Home Office looks too.) This applies to British citizens, as well as others resident in the UK – would you receive residency if the Home Office decided you suddenly weren’t British enough?

To check:        HMRC (tax payments): https://www.gov.uk/personal-tax-account 

                        DWP (NI contributions):https://www.gov.uk/check-state-pension  

                        DVLA (driver’s license): https://www.gov.uk/view-driving-licence

To get a copy of your records, you will be asked to use your ‘GOV.UK Verify’ account – something you can set up the first time you need one.

(Replacing the Home Office’s deeply flawed ID cards scheme – based on the creation of a massive centralised biometric database, and compulsory registration of all citizens – GOV.UK Verify instead uses a small number of certified but non-government ‘identity providers’ to ‘assure’ your identity. You choose the provider, or providers, that suit you to establish your trustworthiness, rather than being assigned an official identity by the government. A process more pleasant than having to convince the Home Office to spell your name right in its files, that it refuses to show you...)

What to do if you find mistakes in your data

If the information that any or all of these Departments hold about you is wrong, the services linked to above will also tell you how to start the process of correcting it. It may help to know that the helplines they provide are staffed by people who are measured by whether they helped you or not – rather than the more chilling metrics of the hostile environment, under which at least some officials believe their job is to “piss you off”.

About the author

Phil Booth co-ordinates medConfidential - campaigning for medical data privacy. For more on how the changes will affect your medical records, visit medConfidential’s ongoing ‘masterclass’ blog series. 

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