This is a blog post by Labour MPs Stella Creasy
(Walthamstow) and Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne
Central). This is the first of a series of WIRED.co.uk special
features, reports and blog posts on the General Election.
In 2011, a third of all divorce proceedings in America contained
reference to Facebook. Just seven years
after its launch, and less than five after it became open to the
public, social media and the material it created had altered
forever that most basic of human relationships. Now so ubiquitous,
it is sometimes hard to remember that the world wide web is only 25-years-old — a platform for
information sharing and communicating that has transformed our
lives in ways our parents, and indeed many of us growing
up, could not have imagined.
In these times of breakneck speed innovation we are all searching for the
“next big thing”, be it Google, Apple or Microsoft that will again
bring widespread change to our lives. For many the focus has turned
to data and data management — with good reason. As we have previously argued, every time you click you are
creating wealth. Whether you are giving up contact details or
browsing online, companies are harvesting information to drive
marketing and product development. In our day-to-day interactions
online, everyone leaches valuable information in the double tap of
a track pad.
Datasets such as store loyalty cards, medical records and
tax affairs are an important and revealing resource for both the
public and private sector. Facebook is not just breaking hearts,
but also making more money out of the content you create than you
could dream. Whether measured in pounds, dollars or bitcoins, the
information we produce on and offline is now one of the most
important and valuable currencies for change in the modern world.
The threat of cyber warfare and terrorism now dominates our news
headlines to chilling effect.
The Tory-led government talks of data as the
new oil, fuelling new industries, oiling the virtual cogs of new
applications and enabling potentially huge profit margins.
But in their rush for “digital gold” all too often they
overlook those generating the data itself. And as new industries
develop that treat people not as citizens or even consumers with
rights, but virtual “oil fields” to be explored, exploited and then
exhausted, so the risk of inequality grows.
Public concern is growing, with many feeling what can be called
“digital discomfort” — the sense that government knows who we are
calling; Amazon is telling us what we should be buying; our
children and friends are being harassed online. Commentators above
and below the line discuss how Google is recording our every move
and shadowy cyber criminals are trying to steal our identities. If
we lose faith in how our information is managed then there will be
little appetite for action, risking that only those with the
loudest voices or largest wallets will determine what possibilities
That’s why the government’s track record is so troubling. From
its shambolic mishandling of care.data and HMRC
data, to the DVLA selling car license data to private parking
companies, it is little wonder many question public data
management. Every government department seems to have a different
policy for data sharing — HMRC alone has 273 known legal data
sharing “gateways” with other agencies and organisations and it
readily admits there may be more it doesn’t know about. Until we
challenged them, NHS Business Services assumed you agreed to share
your data if you did not hang up when their automated voice
response system told you that is what they were going to do. Even
Ben Goldacre, a great champion of open data, recently explained his
concerns over the way in which data can be used.
These problems can make it easy to overlook the opportunities
data can create to empower citizens, reduce costs and make services
much more effective. Many of the recent scandals around child
protection, for example, might have been avoided if data had been
better shared between the relevant agencies. We need a different,
people-powered approach to data collection, analysis and sharing,
which restores trust, ethics and security
into government digital services.
It is time for a public debate on “data and society” that openly
and honestly recognises the challenges of handling and analysing
personal data; that assesses the true benefits and limitations of
big data and open data; and that ensures principles and rights for
both individual and collective benefit in the use of data are
enshrined in law. These concerns are not simply limited to public
agencies, but are at the heart of our approach to all platforms in
which information is produced. That is why Labour has accepted the
recommendation from our Independent
Review of Digital Government 
to establish a review of data in government, and is committed to a
review of information sharing in the private sector as well.
As Ed Milband outlined in his Hugo Young lecture, our starting
principle for this work is that everybody owns their own data. Jon Cruddas has also highlighted our determination to use digital
to transform the relationship between people and government,
making it flatter, more direct, more accountable and putting people
not simply at the centre of government services, but actually
directly in charge.
By giving people skills, control and information, Labour will
put the public in control of increasingly digital public services.
Whilst we cannot repair their online relationship status, we are
determined to ensure everyone is not only able to create, but also
to control their own data. Only a radical Labour administration in
2015 can bring about a progressive digital government that delivers
for every citizen.