Category Archives: National Pupil Database

Commission on Freedom of Information: submission

Since it appears that the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information [FOI] has not published all of the received submissions, I thought I’d post what I’d provided via email.

I’d answered two of the questions with two case studies. The first on application of section 35 and 36 exemptions and the safe space. The second on the proposal for potential charges.

On the Commission website, the excel spreadsheet of evidence submitted online, tab 2 notes that NHS England asked belatedly for its submission be unpublished.

I wonder why.

Follow up to both these FOI requests are now long overdue in 2016. The first from NHS England for the care.data decision making  behind the 2015 decision not to publish a record of whether part of the board meetings were to be secret. Transparency needs to be seen in action, to engender public trust. After all, they’re deciding things like how care.data and genomics will be at the “heart of the transformation of the NHS.”

The second is overdue at the Department for Education on the legal basis for identifiable sensitive data releases from the National Pupil Database that meets Schedule 3 of the Data Protection Act 1998 to permit this datasharing with commercial third parties.

Both in line with the apparently recommended use of FOI
according to Mr. Grayling who most recently said:

“It is a legitimate and important tool for those who want to understand why and how Government is taking decisions and it is not the intention of this Government to change that”.  [Press Gazette]

We’ll look forward to see whether that final sentence is indeed true.

*******

Independent Commission on Freedom of Information Submission
Question 1: a) What protection should there be for information relating to the internal deliberations of public bodies? b) For how long after a decision does such information remain sensitive? c) Should different protections apply to different kinds of information that are currently protected by sections 35 and 36?

A “safe space” in which to develop and discuss policy proposals is necessary. I can demonstrate where it was [eventually] used well, in a case study of a request I made to NHS England. [1]

The current protection afforded to the internal deliberations of public bodies are sufficient given section 35 and 36 exemptions. I asked in October 2014 for NHS England to publish the care.data planning and decision making for the national NHS patient data extraction programme. This programme has been controversial [2]. It will come at great public expense and to date has been harmful to public and professional trust with no public benefit. [3]

NHS England refused my request based on Section 22 [intended for future publication]. [4] However ten months later the meeting minutes had never been published. In July 2015, after appeal, the Information Commissioner issued an Information Notice and NHS England published sixty-three minutes and papers in August 2015.

In these released documents section 36 exemption was then applied to only a tiny handful of redacted comments. This was sufficient to protect the decisions that NHS England had felt to be most sensitive and yet still enable the release of a year’s worth of minutes.

Transparency does not mean that difficult decisions cannot be debated since only outcomes and decisions are recorded, not every part of every discussion verbatim.

The current provision for safe space using these exemptions is effective and in this case would have been no different made immediately after the meeting or one and a half years later.  If anything, publication sooner may have resulted in better informed policy and decision making through wider involvement from professionals and civil society.  The secrecy in the decision making did not build trust.

When policies such as these are found to have no financial business cost-benefit case for example, I believe it is strongly in the public interest to have transparency of these facts, to scrutinise the policy governance in the public interest to enable early intervention when seen to be necessary.
In the words of the Information Commissioner:

“FOIA can rightly challenge and pose awkward questions to public authorities. That is part of democracy. However, checks and balances are needed to ensure that the challenges are proportionate when viewed against all the other vital things a public authority has to do.

“The Commissioner believes that the current checks and balances in the legislation are sufficient to achieve this outcome.” [5]

Given that most public bodies, including NHS England’s Board, routinely publish its minutes this would seem a standard good practice to be expected and I believe routine publication of meeting minutes would have raised trustworthiness of the programme and its oversight and leadership.

The same section 36 exemption could have been applied from the start to the small redactions that were felt necessary balanced against the public interest of open and transparent decision making.

I do not believe more restrictive applications should be made than are currently under sections 35 and 36.

_____________________________________________________________________

Question 6: Is the burden imposed on public authorities under the Act justified by the public interest in the public’s right to know? Or are controls needed to reduce the burden of FoI on public authorities?

As an individual I made 40 requests of schools and 2 from the Department for Education which may now result in benefit for 8 million children and their families, as well as future citizens.

The transparency achieved through these Freedom of Information requests will I hope soon transform the culture at the the Department for Education from one of secrecy to one of openness.

There is the suggestion that a Freedom of Information request would incur a charge to the applicant.

I believe that the benefits of the FOI Act in the public interest outweigh the cost of FOI to public authorities.  In this second example [6], I would ask the Commission to consider if I had not been able to make these Freedom of Information requests due to cost, and therefore I was not able to present evidence to the Minister, Department, and the Information Commissioner, would the panel members support the secrecy around the ongoing risk that current practices pose to children and our future citizens?

Individual, identifiable and sensitive pupil data are released to third parties from the National Pupil Database without telling pupils, parents and schools or their consent. This Department for Education (DfE) FOI request aimed to obtain understanding of any due diligence and the release process: privacy impact and DfE decision making, with a focus on its accountability.

This was to enable transparency and scrutiny in the public interest, to increase the understanding of how our nation’s children’s personal data are used by government, commercial third parties, and even identifiable and sensitive data given to members of the press.

Chancellor Mr. Osborne spoke on November 17 about the importance of online data protection:

“Each of these attacks damages companies, their customers, and the public’s trust in our collective ability to keep their data and privacy safe.”[…] “Imagine the cumulative impact of repeated catastrophic breaches, eroding that basic faith… needed for our online economy & social life to function.”

Free access to FOI enabled me as a member of the public to ask and take action with government and get information from schools to improve practices in the broad public interest.

If there was a cost to this process I could not afford to ask schools to respond.  Schools are managed individually, and as such I requested the answer to the question; whether they were aware of the National Pupil Database and how the Department shared their pupils’ data onwardly with third parties.

I asked a range of schools in the South and East. In order to give a fair picture of more than one county I made requests from a range of types of school – from academy trusts to voluntary controlled schools – 20 primary and 20 secondary.  Due to the range of schools in England and Wales [7] this was a small sample.

Building even a small representative picture of pupil data privacy arrangements in the school system therefore required a separate request to each school.

I would not have been able to do this, had there been a charge imposed for each request.  This research subsequently led me to write to the Information Commissioner’s Office, with my findings.

Were this only to be a process that access costs would mean organisations or press could enter into due to affordability, then the public would only be able to find out what matters or was felt important to those organisations, but not what matters to individuals.

However what matters to one individual might end up making a big difference to many people.

Individuals may be interested in what are seen as minority topics, perhaps related to discrimination according to gender, sexuality, age, disability, class, race or ethnicity.  If individuals cannot afford to  challenge government policies that matter to them as an individual, we may lose the benefit that they can bring when they go on to champion the rights of more people in the country as a whole.

Eight million children’s records, from children aged 2-19 are stored in the National Pupil Database. I hope that due to the FOI request increased transparency and better practices will help restore their data protections for individuals and also re-establish organisational trust in the Department.

Information can be used to enable or constrain citizenship. In order to achieve universal access to human rights to support participation, transparency and accountability, I appeal that the Commission recognise the need for individuals to tackle vested interests, unjust laws and policies.

Any additional barriers such as cost, only serve to reduce equality and make society less just. There is however an immense intangible value in an engaged public which is hard to measure. People are more likely to be supportive of public servant decision making if they are not excluded from it.

Women for example are underrepresented in Parliament and therefore in public decision making. Further, the average gap within the EU pay is 16 per cent, but pay levels throughout the whole of Europe differ hugely, and in the South East of the UK men earn 25 per cent more than their female counterparts. [8]  Women and mothers like me may therefore find it more difficult to participate in public life and to make improvements on behalf of other families and children across the country.

To charge for access to information about our public decision making process could therefore be excluding and discriminatory.

I believe these two case studies show that the Act’s intended objectives, on parliamentary introduction — to ‘transform the culture of Government from one of secrecy to one of openness’; ‘raise confidence in the processes of government, and enhance the quality of decision making by Government’; and to ‘secure a balance between the right to information…and the need for any organisation, including Government, to be able to formulate its collective policies in private’ — work in practice.

If anything, they need strengthened to ensure accessibility.

Any actions to curtail free and equal access to these kinds of information would not be in the public interest and a significant threat to the equality of opportunity offered to the public in making requests. Charging would particularly restrict access to FOI for poorer individuals and communities who are often those already excluded from full public participation in public life.
___________________________________________________________________________

[1] https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/caredata_programme_board_minutes
[2] http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/dec/12/nhs-patient-care-data-sharing-scheme-delayed-2015-concerns
[3] http://www.statslife.org.uk/news/1672-new-rss-research-finds-data-trust-deficit-with-lessons-for-policymakers
[4] https://secureservercdn.net/160.153.137.218/b14.5da.myftpupload.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/caredataprogramme_FOI.pdf
[5] https://ico.org.uk/media/about-the-ico/consultation-responses/2015/1560175/ico-response-independent-commission-on-freedom-of-information.pdf
[6] https://secureservercdn.net/160.153.137.218/b14.5da.myftpupload.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/NPD_FOI_submissionv3.pdf
[7] http://www.newschoolsnetwork.org/sites/default/files/Comparison%20of%20school%20types.pdf
[8] http://www.equalpayportal.co.uk/statistics/

Monitoring software in schools: the Department for Education’s digital dream or nightmare? (2)

“Children do not lose their human rights by virtue of passing through the school gates” (UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment on ‘The aims of education’, 2001).

The Digital Skills in Schools inquiry [1] is examining the gap in education of our children to enable them to be citizens fit for the future.

We have an “educational gap” in digital skills and I have suggested it should not be seen only as functional or analytical, but should also address a gap in ethical skills and framework to equip our young people to understand their digital rights, as well as responsibilities.

Children must be enabled in education with opportunity to understand how they can grow “to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity”. [2]

Freedom to use the internet in privacy does not mean having to expose children to risks, but we should ask, are there ways of implementing practices which are more proportionate, and less intrusive than monitoring and logging keywords [3] for every child in the country? What problem is the DfE trying to solve and how?

Nicky Morgan’s “fantastic” GPS tracking App

The second technology tool Nicky Morgan mentioned in her BETT speech on January 22nd, is an app with GPS tracking and alerts creation. Her app verdict was “excellent” and “fantastic”:

“There are excellent examples at the moment such as the Family First app by Group Call. It uses GPS in mobile phones to help parents keep track of their children’s whereabouts, allowing them to check that they have arrived safely to school, alerting them if they stray from their usual schedule.” [4]

I’m not convinced tracking every child’s every move is either excellent or fantastic. Primarily because it will foster a nation of young people who feel untrusted, and I see a risk it could create a lower sense of self-reliance, self-confidence and self-responsibility.

Just as with the school software monitoring [see part one], there will be a chilling effect on children’s freedom if these technologies become the norm. If you fear misusing a word in an online search, or worry over stigma what others think, would you not change your behaviour? Our young people need to feel both secure and trusted at school.

How we use digital in schools shapes our future society

A population that trusts one another and trusts its government and organisations and press, is vital to a well functioning society.

If we want the benefits of a global society, datasharing for example to contribute to medical advance, people must understand how their own data and digital footprint fits into a bigger picture to support it.

In schools today pupils and parents are not informed that their personal confidential data are given to commercial third parties by the Department for Education at national level [5]. Preventing public engagement, hiding current practices, downplaying the risks of how data are misused, also prevents fair and transparent discussion of its benefits and how to do it better. Better, like making it accessible only in a secure setting not handing data out to Fleet Street.

For children this holds back public involvement in the discussion of the roles of technology in their own future. Fear of public backlash over poor practices must not hold back empowering our children’s understanding of digital skills and how their digital identity matters.

Digital skills are not shorthand for coding, but critical life skills

Skills our society will need must simultaneously manage the benefits to society and deal with great risks that will come with these advances in technology; advances in artificial intelligence, genomics, and autonomous robots, to select only three examples.

There is a glaring gap in their education how their own confidential personal data and digital footprint fit a globally connected society, and how they are used by commercial business and third parties.

There are concerns how apps could be misused by others too.

If we are to consider what is missing in our children’s preparations for life in which digital will no longer be a label but a way of life, then to identify the gap, we must first consider what we see as whole.

Rather than keeping children safe in education, as regards data sharing and digital privacy, the DfE seems happy to keep them ignorant. This is no way to treat our young people and develop their digital skills, just as giving their data away is not good cyber security.

What does a Dream for a  great ‘digital’ Society look like?

Had Martin Luther King lived to be 87 he would have continued to inspire hope and to challenge us to fulfill his dream for society – where everyone would have an equal opportunity for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Moving towards that goal, supported with technology, with ethical codes of practice, my dream is we see a more inclusive, fulfilled, sustainable and happier society. We must educate our children as fully rounded digital and data savvy individuals, who trust themselves and systems they use, and are well treated by others.

Sadly, introductions of these types of freedom limiting technologies for our children, risk instead that it may be a society in which many people do not feel comfortable, that lost sight of the value of privacy.

References:

[1] Digital Skills Inquiry: http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/science-and-technology-committee/inquiries/parliament-2015/digital-skills-inquiry-15-16/

[2] UN Convention of the Rights of the Child

[3] Consultation: Keeping Children Safe in Education – closing Feb 16thThe “opportunities to teach safeguarding” section (para 77-78) has been updated and now says governing bodies and proprieties “should ensure” rather than “should consider” that children are taught about safeguarding, including online, through teaching and learning opportunities.

The Consultation Guidance: most relevant paragraphs 75 and 77 p 22

[4] Nicky Morgan’s full speech at BETT

[5] The defenddigitalme campaign to ask the Department forEducation to change practices and policy around The National Pupil Database

 

 

Monitoring software in schools: the Department for Education’s digital dream or nightmare? (1)

Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary,  gave a speech [1] this week and shared her dream of the benefits technology for pupils.

It mentioned two initiatives to log children’s individual actions; one is included in a consultation on new statutory guidance, and the other she praised, is a GPS based mobile monitoring app.

As with many new applications of technology, how the concept is to be implemented in practice is important to help understand how intrusive any new use of data is going to be.

Unfortunately for this consultation there is no supporting code of practice what the change will mean, and questions need asked.

The most significant aspects in terms of changes to data collection through required monitoring are in the areas of statutory monitoring, systems, and mandatory teaching of ‘safeguarding’:

Consultation p11/14: “We believe including the requirement to ensure appropriate filtering and monitoring are in place, in statutory guidance, is proportional and reasonable in order to ensure all schools and colleges are meeting this requirement. We don’t think including this requirement will create addition burdens for the vast majority of schools, as they are already doing this, but we are keen to test this assumption.”

Consultation:  paragraph 75 on page 22 introduces this guidance section and ends with a link to “Buying advice for schools.” “Governing bodies and proprietors should be confident that systems are in place that will identify children accessing or trying to access harmful and inappropriate content online. Guidance on e-security is available from the National Education Network.

Guidance: para 78 “Whilst it is essential that governing bodies and proprietors ensure that appropriate filters and monitoring systems are in place they should be careful  that “over blocking” does not lead to unreasonable restrictions as to what children can be taught with regards to online teaching  and safeguarding.” —

Consultation: “The Opportunities to teach safeguarding” section (para 77-78) has been updated and now says governing bodies and  “should ensure” rather than “should consider” that children are taught about safeguarding, including online, through teaching and learning opportunities. This is an important topic and the assumption is the vast majority of governing bodies and proprietors will already be ensuring the children in their school are suitably equipped with regards to safeguarding. But we are keen to hear views as to the change in emphasis.”

Paragraph 88 on p24  is oddly phrased: “Governing bodies and proprietors should ensure that staff members do not agree confidentiality and always act in the best interests of the child.”

What if confidentiality may sometimes be in the best interests of the child? What would that mean in practice?

 

Keeping Children Safe in Education – Questions on the Consultation and Use in practice

The consultation [2] is open until February 16th, and includes a new requirement to have web filtering and monitoring systems.

Remembering that 85% of children’s waking hours are spent outside school, and in a wide range of schools our children aged 2 -19, not every moment is spent unsupervised and on-screen, is it appropriate that this 24/7 monitoring would be applied to all types of school?

This provider software is reportedly being used in nearly 1,400 secondary schools in the UK.  We hear little about its applied use.

The cases of cyber bullying or sexting in schools I hear of locally, or read in the press, are through smartphones. Unless the school snoops on individual devices I wonder therefore if the cost, implementation and impact is proportionate to the benefit?

  1. Necessary and proportionate? How does this type of monitoring compare with other alternatives?
  2. Privacy impact assessment? Has any been done – surely required as a minimum measure?
  3. Cost benefit risk assessment of the new guidance in practice?
  4. Problem vs Solution: What problem is it trying to solve and how will they measure if it is successful, or stop its use if it is not?  Are other methods on offer?
  5. Due diligence: how do parents know that the providers have undergone thorough vetting and understand who they are? After all, these providers have access to millions of our children’s  online interactions.
  6. Evidence: If it has been used for years in school, how has it been assessed against other methods of supervision?
  7. The national cash cost: this must be enormous when added up for every school in the country, how is cost balanced against risk?
  8. Intangible costs – has anyone asked our children’s feeling on this? Where is the boundary between what is constructive and creepy? Is scope change documented if they decide to collect more data?

Are we Creating a Solution that Solves or creates a Problem?

The private providers would have no incentive to say their reports don’t work and schools, legally required to be risk averse, would be unlikely to say stop if there is no outcome at all.

Some providers  include “review of all incidents by child protection and forensic experts; freeing up time for teachers to focus on intervention” and “trends such as top users can be viewed.” How involved are staff who know the child as a first point of information sharing?

Most tools are multipurposed and I understand the reasons given behind them, but how it is implemented concerns me.

If the extent of these issues really justify this mass monitoring in every school – what are we doing to fix the causes, not simply spy on every child’s every online action in school? (I look at how it extends outside in part two.)

Questions on Public engagement: How are children and families involved in the implementation and with what oversight?

  1. Privacy and consent: Has anyone asked pupils and parents what they think and what rights they have to say no to sharing data?
  2. Involvement: Are parents to be involved and informed in software purchasing and in all data sharing decisions at local or regional level? Is there consistency of message if providers vary?
  3. Transparency: Where are the data created through the child’s actions stored, and for how long? Who has access to the data? What actions may result from it? And with what oversight?
  4. Understanding: How will children and parents be told what is “harmful and inappropriate content” as loosely defined by the consultation, and what they may or may not research? Children’s slang changes often, and “safeguarding” terms are subjective.
  5. Recourse: Will it include assessment of unintended consequences from misinterpretation of information gathered?
  6. Consent: And can I opt my child out from data collection by these unknown and ‘faceless’ third parties?

If children and parents are told their web use is monitored, what chilling effect may that have on their trust of the system, of teaching staff, and their ability to look for content to support their own sensitive concerns or development  that they may not be able to safe to look for at home? What limitation will that put on their creativity?

These are all questions that should be asked to thoroughly understand the consultation and requires wide public examination.

Since key logging is already common practice (according to provider websites) and will effectively in practice become statutory, where is the public discussion? If it’s not explicitly statutory, should pupils be subject to spying on their web searches in a postcode lottery?

What exactly might this part of the new guidance mean for pupils?

In part two, I include the other part of her speech, the GPS app and ask whether if we track every child in and outside school, are we moving closer to the digital dream, or nightmare, in the search to close the digital skills gap?

****

References:

[1] Nicky Morgan’s full speech at BETT

[2] Consultation: Keeping Children Safe in Education – closing Feb 16thThe “opportunities to teach safeguarding” section (para 77-78) has been updated and now says governing bodies and proprieties “should ensure” rather than “should consider” that children are taught about safeguarding, including online, through teaching and learning opportunities.

The Consultation Guidance: most relevant paragraphs 75 and 77 p 22

“Governing bodies and proprietors should be confident that systems are in place that will identify children accessing or trying to access harmful and inappropriate content online. [Proposed statutory guidance]

Since “guidance on procuring appropriate ICT” from the National Education Network NEN* is offered, it is clearly intended that this ‘system’ to be ‘in place’, should be computer based. How will it be applied in practice? A number of the software providers for schools already provide services that include key logging, using “keyword detection libraries” that “provides a complete log of all online activity”.

(*It’s hard to read more about as many of NEN’s links are dead.)  

Ethics, standards and digital rights – time for a citizens’ charter

Central to future data sharing [1] plans is the principle of public interest, intended to be underpinned by transparency in all parts of the process, to be supported by an informed public.  Three principles that are also key in the plan for open policy.

The draft ethics proposals [2] start with user need (i.e. what government wants, researchers want, the users of the data) and public benefit.

With these principles in mind I wonder how compatible the plans are in practice, plans that will remove the citizen from some of the decision making about information sharing from the citizen; that is, you and me.

When talking about data sharing it is all too easy to forget we are talking about people, and in this case, 62 million individual people’s personal information, especially when users of data focus on how data are released or published. The public thinks in terms of personal data as info related to them. And the ICO says, privacy and an individual’s rights are engaged at the point of collection.

The trusted handling, use and re-use of population-wide personal data sharing and ID assurance are vital to innovation and digital strategy. So in order to make these data uses secure and trusted, fit for the 21st century, when will the bad bits of current government datasharing policy and practice [3] be replaced by good parts of ethical plans?

Current practice and Future Proofing Plans

How is policy being future proofed at a time of changes to regulation in the new EUDP which are being made in parallel? Changes that clarify consent and the individual, requiring clear affirmative action by the data subject. [4]  How do public bodies and departments plan to meet the current moral and legal obligation to ensure persons whose personal data are subject to transfer and processing between two public administrative bodies must be informed in advance?

How is public perception [5] being taken into account?

And how are digital identities to be protected when they are literally our passport to the world, and their integrity is vital to maintain, especially for our children in the world of big data [6] we cannot imagine today? How do we verify identity but not have to reveal the data behind it, if those data are to be used in ever more government transactions – done badly that could mean the citizen loses sight of who knows what information and who it has been re-shared with.

From the 6th January there are lots of open questions, no formal policy document or draft legislation to review. It appears to be far off being ready for public consultation, needing concrete input on practical aspects of what the change would mean in practice.

Changing the approach to the collection of citizens’ personal data and removing the need for consent to wide re-use and onward sharing, will open up a massive change to the data infrastructure of the country in terms of who is involved in administrative roles in the process and when. As a country to date we have not included data as part of our infrastructure. Some suggest we should. To change the construction of roads would require impact planning, mapping and thought out budget before beginning the project to assess its impact. An assessment this data infrastructure change appears to be missing entirely.

I’ve considered the plans in terms of case studies of policy and practice, transparency and trust, the issues of data quality and completeness and digital inclusion.

But I’m starting by sharing only my thoughts on ethics.

Ethics, standards and digital rights – time for a public charter

How do you want your own, or your children’s personal data handled?

This is not theoretical. Every one of us in the UK has our own confidential data used in a number of ways about which we are not aware today. Are you OK with that? With academic researchers? With GCHQ? [7] What about charities? Or Fleet Street press? All of these bodies have personal data from population wide datasets and that means all of us or all of our children, whether or not we are the subjects of research, subject to investigation, or just an ordinary citizen minding their own business.

On balance, where do you draw the line between your own individual rights and public good? What is fair use without consent and where would you be surprised and want to be informed?
I would like to hear more about how others feel about and weigh the risks and benefits trade off in this area.

Some organisations on debt have concern about digital exclusion. Others about compiling single view data in coercive relationships. Some organisations are campaigning for a digital bill of rights. I had some thoughts on this specifically for health data in the past.

A charter of digital standards and ethics could be enabling, not a barrier and should be a tool that must come to consultation before new legislation.

Discussing datasharing that will open up every public data set “across every public body” without first having defined a clear policy is a challenge. Without defining its ethical good practice first as a reference framework, it’s dancing in the dark. This draft plan is running in parallel but not part of the datasharing discussion.
Ethical practice and principles must be the foundation of data sharing plans, not an after thought.

Why? Because this stuff is hard. The kinds of research that use sensitive de-identified data are sometimes controversial and will become more challenging as the capabilities of what is possible increase with machine learning, genomics, and increased personalisation and targeting of marketing, and interventions.

The ADRN had spent months on its ethical framework and privacy impact assessment, before I joined the panel.

What does Ethics look like in sharing bulk datasets?

What do you think about the commercialisation of genomic data by the state – often from children whose parents are desperate for a diagnosis – to ‘kick start’ the UK genomics industry?  What do you think about data used in research on domestic violence and child protection? And in predictive policing?

Or research on religious affiliations and home schooling? Or abortion and births in teens matching school records to health data?

Will the results of the research encourage policy change or interventions with any group of people? Could these types of research have unintended consequences or be used in ways researchers did not foresee supporting not social benefit but a particular political or scientific objective? If so, how is that governed?

What research is done today, what is good practice, what is cautious and what would Joe Public expect? On domestic violence for example, public feedback said no.

And while there’s also a risk of not making the best use of data, there are also risks of releasing even anonymised data [8] in today’s world in which jigsawing together the pieces of poorly anonymised data means it is identifying. Profiling or pigeonholing individuals or areas was a concern raised in public engagement work.

The Bean Report used to draw out some of the reasoning behind needs for increased access to data: “Remove obstacles to the greater use of public sector administrative data for statistical purposes, including through changes to the associated legal framework, while ensuring appropriate ethical safeguards are in place and privacy is protected.”

The Report doesn’t outline how the appropriate ethical safeguards are in place and privacy is protected. Or what ethical looks like.

In the Public interest is not clear cut.

The boundary between public and private interest shift in time as well as culture. While in the UK the law today says we all have the right to be treated as equals, regardless of our gender, identity or sexuality it has not always been so.

By putting the rights of the individual on a lower par than the public interest in this change, we risk jeopardising having any data at all to use. But data will be central to the digital future strategy we are told the government wants to “show the rest of the world how it’s done.”

If they’re serious, if all our future citizens must have a digital identity to use with government with any integrity, then the use of not only our current adult, but our children’s data really matters – and current practices must change.  Here’s a case study why:

Pupil data: The Poster Child of Datasharing Bad Practice

Right now, the National Pupil database containing our 8 million or more children’s personal data in England is unfortunately the poster child of what a change in legislation and policy around data sharing, can mean in practice.  Bad practice.

The “identity of a pupil will not be discovered using anonymised data in isolation”, says the User Guide, but when they give away named data, and identifiable data in all but 11 requests since 2012, it’s not anonymised. Anything but the ‘anonymised data’ of publicly announced plans presented in 2011, yet precisely what the change in law to broaden the range of users in the Prescribed Persons Act 2009 permitted , and the expansion of purposes in the amended Education (Individual Pupil Information)(Prescribed Persons) Regulations introduced in June 2013.  It was opened up to:

“(d)persons who, for the purpose of promoting the education or well-being of children in England are—

(i)conducting research or analysis,

(ii)producing statistics, or

(iii)providing information, advice or guidance,

and who require individual pupil information for that purpose(5);”.

The law was changed so that, individual pupil level data, and pupil names are extracted, stored and have also been released at national level. Raw data sent to commercial third parties, charities and press in identifiable individual level and often sensitive data items.

This is a world away from safe setting, statistical analysis of de-identified data by accredited researchers, in the public interest.

Now our children’s confidential data sit on servers on Fleet Street – is this the model for all our personal administrative data in future?

If not, how do we ensure it is not? How will the new all-datasets’ datasharing legislation permit wider sharing with more people than currently have access and not end up with all our identifiable data sent ‘into the wild’ without audit as our pupil data are today?

Consultation, transparency, oversight and public involvement in ongoing data decision making are key, and  well written legislation.

The public interest alone, is not a strong enough description to keep data safe. This same government brought in this National Pupil Database policy thinking it too was ‘in the public interest’ after all.

We need a charter of ethics and digital rights that focuses on the person, not exclusively the public interest use of data.

They are not mutually exclusive, but enhance one another.

Getting ethics in the right place

These ethical principles start in the wrong place. To me, this is not an ethical framework, it’s a ‘how-to-do-data-sharing’ guideline and try to avoid repeating care.data. Ethics is not first about the public interest, or economic good, or government interest. Instead, referencing an ethics council view, you start with the person.

“The terms of any data initiative must take into account both private and public interests. Enabling those with relevant interests to have a say in how their data are used and telling them how they are, in fact, used is a way in which data initiatives can demonstrate respect for persons.”

Professor Michael Parker, Member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics Working Party and Professor of Bioethics and Director of the Ethox Centre, University of Oxford:

“Compliance with the law is not enough to guarantee that a particular use of data is morally acceptable – clearly not everything that can be done should be done. Whilst there can be no one-size-fits-all solution, people should have say in how their data are used, by whom and for what purposes, so that the terms of any project respect the preferences and expectations of all involved.”

The  partnership between members of the public and public administration must be consensual to continue to enjoy support. [10]. If personal data are used for research or other uses, in the public interest, without explicit consent, it should be understood as a privilege by those using the data, not a right.

As such, we need to see data as about the person, as they see it themselves, and data at the point of collection as information about individual people, not just think of statistics. Personal data are sensitive, and some research uses highly sensitive,  and data used badly can do harm. Designing new patterns of datasharing must think of the private, as well as public interest,  co-operating for the public good.

And we need a strong ethical framework to shape that in.

******

[1] http://datasharing.org.uk/2016/01/13/data-sharing-workshop-i-6-january-2016-meeting-note/

[2] Draft data science ethical framework: https://data.blog.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/164/2015/12/Data-science-ethics-short-for-blog-1.pdf

[3] defenddigitalme campaign to get pupil data in England made safe http://defenddigitalme.com/

[4] On the European Data Protection regulations: https://www.privacyandsecuritymatters.com/2015/12/the-general-data-protection-regulation-in-bullet-points/

[5] Public engagament work – ADRN/ESRC/ Ipsos MORI 2014 https://adrn.ac.uk/media/1245/sri-dialogue-on-data-2014.pdf

[6] Written evidence submitted to the parliamentary committee on big data: http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/science-and-technology-committee/big-data-dilemma/written/25380.pdf

[7] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-35300671 Theresa May affirmed bulk datasets use at the IP Bill committee hearing and did not deny use of bulk personal datasets, including medical records

[8] http://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21660966-can-big-databases-be-kept-both-anonymous-and-useful-well-see-you-anon

[9] Nuffield Council on Bioethics http://nuffieldbioethics.org/report/collection-linking-use-data-biomedical-research-health-care/ethical-governance-of-data-initiatives/

[10] Royal Statistical Society –  the data trust deficit https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3422/New-research-finds-data-trust-deficit-with-lessons-for-policymakers.aspx

Background: Why datasharing matters to me:

When I joined the data sharing discussions that have been running for almost 2 years only very recently, it was wearing two hats, both in a personal capacity.

The first was with interest in how any public policy and legislation may be changing and will affect deidentified datasharing for academic research, as I am one of two lay people, offering public voice on the ADRN approvals panel.

Its aim is to makes sure the process of granting access to the use of sensitive, linked administrative data from population-wide datasets is fair, equitable and transparent, for de-identified use by trusted researchers, for non-commercial use, under strict controls and in safe settings. Once a research project is complete, the data are securely destroyed. It’s not doing work that “a government department or agency would carry out as part of its normal operations.”

Wearing my second hat, I am interested to see how new policy and practice plan to affect current practice. I coordinate the campaign efforts with the Department for Education to stop giving away the identifiable, confidential and sensitive personal data of our 8m children in England to commercial third parties and press from the National Pupil Database.

Access to school pupil personal data by third parties is changing

The Department for Education in England and Wales [DfE] has lost control of who can access our children’s identifiable school records by giving individual and sensitive personal data out to a range of third parties, since government changed policy in 2012. It looks now like they’re panicking how to fix it.

Applicants wanting children’s personal identifiable and/or sensitive data now need to first apply for the lowest level criminal record check, DBS, in the access process, to the National Pupil Database.

Schools Week wrote about it and asked for comment on the change [1] (as discussed by Owen in his blog [2] and our tweets).

At first glance, it sound like a great idea, but what real difference will this make to who can receive 8 million school pupils’ data?

Yes, you did read that right.

The National Pupil Database gives away the personal data of eight million children, aged 2-19. Gives it away outside its own protection,  because users get sent raw data, to their own desks.[3]

It would be good to know people receiving your child’s data hadn’t ever been cautioned or convicted about something related to children in their past, right?

Unfortunately, this DBS check won’t tell the the Department for Education (DfE) that – because it’s the the basic £25 DBS check [4], not full version.

So this change seems less about keeping children’s personal data safe than being seen to do something. Anything. Anything but the thing that needs done. Which is to keep the data secure.

Why is this not a brilliant solution? 

Moving towards the principle of keeping the data more secure is right, but in practice, the DBS check is only useful if it would make data safe by stopping people receiving data and the risks associated with data misuse. So how will this DBS check achieve this? It’s not designed for people who handle data. It’s designed for people working with children.

There is plenty of evidence available of data inappropriately used for commercial purposes often in the news, and often through inappropriate storage and sharing of data as well as malicious breaches. I am not aware, and refer to this paper [5], of risks realised through malicious data misuse of data for academic purposes in safe settings. Though mistakes do happen through inappropriate processes, and through human error and misjudgement.

However it is not necessary to have a background check for its own sake. It is necessary to know that any users handle children’s data securely and appropriately, and with transparent oversight. There is no suggestion at all that people at TalkTalk are abusing data, but their customers’ data were not secure and those data held in trust are now being misused.

That risk is the harm that is likely to affect a high number of individuals if bulk personal data are not securely managed. Measures to make it so must be proportionate to that risk. [6]

Coming back to what this will mean for individual applicants and its purpose: Basic Disclosure contains only convictions considered unspent under The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. [7]

The absence of a criminal record does not mean data are securely stored or appropriately used by the recipient.

The absence of a criminal record does not mean data will not be forwarded to another undisclosed recipient and there be a way for the DfE to ever know it happened.

The absence of a criminal record showing up on the basic DBS check does not even prove that the person has no previous conviction related to misuse of people or of data. And anything you might consider ‘relevant’ to children for example, may have expired.

DBS_box copy

So for these reasons, I disagree that the decision to have a basic DBS check is worthwhile.  Why? Because it’s effectively meaningless and doesn’t solve the problem which is this:

Anyone can apply for 8m children’s personal data, and as long as they meet some purposes and application criteria, they get sent sensitive and identifiable children’s data to their own setting. And they do. [8]

Anyone the 2009 designed legislation has defined as a prescribed person or researcher, has come to mean journalists for example. Like BBC Newsnight, or Fleet Street papers. Is it right journalists can access my children’s data, but as pupils and parents we cannot, and we’re not even informed? Clearly not.

It would be foolish to be reassured by this DBS check. The DfE is kidding themselves if they think this is a workable or useful solution.

This step is simply a tick box and it won’t stop the DfE regularly giving away the records of eight million children’s individual level and sensitive data.

What problem is this trying to solve and how will it achieve it?

Before panicking to implement a change DfE should first answer:

  • who will administer and store potentially sensitive records of criminal convictions, even if unrelated to data?
  • what implications does this have for other government departments handling individual personal data?
  • why are 8m children’s personal and sensitive data given away ‘into the wild’ beyond DfE oversight in the first place?

Until the DfE properly controls the individual personal data flowing out from NPD, from multiple locations, in raw form, and its governance, it makes little material difference whether the named user is shown to have, or not have a previous criminal record. [9] Because the DfE has no idea if they are they only person who uses it.

The last line from DfE in the article is interesting: “it is entirely right that we we continue to make sure that those who have access to it have undergone the necessary background checks.”

Continue from not doing it before? Tantamount to a denial of change, to avoid scrutiny of the past and status quo? They have no idea who has “access” to our children’s data today after they have released it, except on paper and trust, as there’s no audit process.[10]

If this is an indicator of the transparency and type of wording the DfE wants to use to communicate to schools, parents and pupils I am concerned. Instead we need to see full transparency, assessment of privacy impact and a public consultation of coordinated changes.

Further, if I were an applicant, I’d be concerned that DfE is currently handling sensitive pupil data poorly, and wants to collect more of mine.

In summary: because of change in Government policy in 2012 and the way in which it is carried out in practice, the Department for Education in England and Wales [DfE] has lost control of who can access our 8m children’s identifiable school records. Our children deserve proper control of their personal data and proper communication about who can access that and why.

Discovering through FOI [11] the sensitivity level and volume of identifiable data access journalists are being given, shocked me. Discovering that schools and parents have no idea about it, did not.

This is what must change.

 

*********

If you have questions or concerns about the National Pupil Database or your own experience, or your child’s data used in schools, please feel free to get in touch, and let’s see if we can make this better to use our data well, with informed public support and public engagement.

********

References:
[1] National Pupil Database: How to apply: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/national-pupil-database-apply-for-a-data-extract

[2]Blogpost: http://mapgubbins.tumblr.com/post/132538209345/no-more-fast-track-access-to-the-national-pupil

[3] Which third parties have received data since 2012 (Tier 1 and 2 identifiable, individual and/or sensitive): release register https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/ national-pupil-database-requests-received

[4] The Basic statement content http://www.disclosurescotland.co.uk/disclosureinformation/index.htm

[5] Effective Researcher management: 2009 T. Desai (London School of Economics) and F. Ritchie (Office for National Statistics), United Kingdom http://www.unece.org/fileadmin/DAM/stats/documents/ece/ces/ge.46/2009/wp.15.e.pdf

[6] TalkTalk is not the only recent significant data breach of public trust. An online pharmacy that sold details of more than 20,000 customers to marketing companies has been fined £130,000 https://ico.org.uk/action-weve-taken/enforcement/pharmacy2u-ltd/

[7] Guidance on rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/
attachment_data/file/299916/rehabilitation-of-offenders-guidance.pdf

[8] the August 2014 NPD application from BBC Newsnight https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/293030/response/723407/attach/10/BBC%20Newsnight.pdf

[9] CPS Guidelines for offences involving children https://www.sentencingcouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Final_Sexual_Offences_Definitive_Guideline_content_web1.pdf
indecent_images_of_children/

[10] FOI request https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/pupil_data_application_approvals#outgoing-482241

[11] #saveFOI – I found out exactly how many requests had been fast tracked and not scrutinised by the data panel via a Freedom of Information Request, as well as which fields journalists were getting access to. The importance of public access to this kind of information is a reason to stand up for FOI  http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/press-gazette-launches-petition-stop-charges-foi-requests-which-would-be-tax-journalism

 

Act now: Stand up and speak out for your rights to finding out the facts #saveFOI

The Freedom of Information Act has enabled me to stand up for my children’s rights. It really matters to me. And we might lose it.

For every member of the public, who has ever or who has never used their rights under the Freedom of Information Act laws, the government consultation on changing them that closes today is worth caring about. If you haven’t yet had your say, go and take action here >> now.  If it is all you have time for before the end of today, you can sign 38 degrees petition or write an email to your MP.

Or by the end of today you can reply to the call for evidence. There is further guidance on the Campaign For Freedom of Information’s website. 38 Degrees have also got this plain English version.

Please do. Now. It closes today, on November 20th.

If you need convinced why it matters to me and it should to you, read on.

What will happen

If the proposed changes come to pass, information about public accountability will be lost. Political engagement will not be open to all equally. It will promote an unfair society in which individuals are not only prevented from taking part in full public life, but prevented from understanding decisions made about them or that affect them. Campaign groups will be constrained from standing up for human rights by cost.  The press will be restrained in what they can ask.

MySociety has a brilliant summary.  Michael Sheen spoke up calling it “nothing short of a full frontal attack” on the principles of democratic government. And Tom Watson spoke of three serious instances where facts would have stayed hidden, were it not for access made using the law of Freedom of Information:

1. death rates in cardiac patient care
2. cases when the police use Tasers on children
3. the existence of cracks in the nuclear power station at Hinckley

Why does FOI matter to me personally? In Education.

Because it’s enabled me to start a conversation to get the Department for Education to start to improve their handling of our 8 million children’s personal and sensitive data they hold in the National Pupil Database for England and Wales. Through FOI I asked for unpublished facts how many releases of identifiable personal data of school pupils have been fast-tracked at the Department of Education without panel oversight. And to see the panel terms of reference which are still not on their website.

The request: whatdotheykknow.com
The outcome:
National Pupil Database FOI case study summary here.

I’m now coordinating calls for changes on behalf of the 8m children whose records they hold and parents across the country.

******

Why does FOI matter to me personally? In Health.

Because Freedom of Information law has enabled public transparency of decision making and accountability of the care.data programme board decision making that was kept secret for over a year. NHS England refused to publish them. Their internal review declined appeal. The Information Commissioner’s Office upheld it.

The current protection afforded to the internal deliberations of public bodies are sufficient given section 35 and 36 exemptions. In fact my case study, while highlighting that NHS England refused to release information, also shows that only a handful of genuine redactions were necessary, using Section 36 to keep them hidden, when the minutes were finally released.

In October 2014 I simply wanted to see the meeting minutes form part of the public record of care.data planning. I wanted to see the cost-benefit business case and scrutinise it against the benefits case that the public were told of at every public engagement event I had been to.  When at every turn the public is told how little money the NHS can afford to spend I wanted scrutiny of what the programme would cost at national and local levels. It was in the public interest to better inform public debate about the merits of the national programme. And I strongly believe that it is in the public interest to be informed and fully understand the intention and programme that demands the use of sensitive personal data.

The request: whatdotheyknow.com
The outcome: care.data FOI case study summary here.

Others could use this information I hoped, to ask the right questions about missing meeting minutes and transparency, and for everyone to question why there was no cost-benefit business plan at all in private; while the public kept being told of the benefits.  And it shows that data collection is further set to expand, without public debate.

Since then the programme has been postoned again and work is in progress on improved public engagement to enable public and professional confidence.

What has Freedom of Information achieved?

One of the most memorable results of Freedom of Information was the MPs expenses scandal. Who knows how much this Freedom of Information Request saved the taxpayers in immeasurable amounts of future spending on duck houses since MPs have been required to publish expenses since 2010? Four MPs were jailed for false accounting. Peers were expelled. Second homes and what appeared to the public as silly spending on sundries were revealed. Mr. Cameron apologized in 2009, saying he was “appalled” by the expenses. The majority of MPs had done nothing illegal but the Freedom of Information request enabled the start of a process of increased transparency to the public which showed where activities, while permitted by law, were simply unethical or unreasonable.

Historical record

Information published under the Freedom of Information Act can help to ensure that important records of decision-making processes are retained as part of the historic background to government.

Increased trust

The right information at the right time helps make better decisions, make spending more transparent and makes policies and practices more trustworthy.

Access to official information can also improve public confidence where public sector bodies are seen as being open. In a 2011 survey carried out on behalf of the Information Commissioner’s Office, 81% of public bodies questioned agreed that the Act had increased the public’s trust in their organisation.

A key argument made by the commission is that those in public office need private space for decision making. The Information Commissioner’s Office countered this in their submission to the consultation saying,

“there is a distinction between a need for a private space, depending on the circumstances and a desire for secrecy across a broad area of public sector activity. It was the latter tendency that FOIA was intended to correct.”

So how much more “private space” do public servants need?

Holding back information

When information that are judged should not be released in the public interest, there are already exemptions that can be applied to prevent disclosure of information under the Freedom of Information Act. [1]

The exemptions include:

  • if the information can easily be accessed by other means – e.g. the internet or published documents
  • if the information is personal information
  • if the information is provided in confidence (but only if legally enforceable)
  • when there is a legal reason not to disclose
  • if the information is about national security, defence, the economy, law enforcement, formulation of Government policy, health and safety, communications with Her Majesty or other royalty, international relations, intended for future publication and commercial interests. (All exemptions in this group must be tested to see if disclosure is in the public interest.)

In addition to these exemptions, organisations can withhold information if it will take more than two-and-a-half days to provide it, or they cannot identify what information is needed (although they have to work with the requester to clarify what is being requested).

They can also withhold information if they decide the request is vexatious.

Does it cost us too much to administer?

Some people who are supportive of these changes say they are concerned about costs in answering requests but have perhaps not considered the savings in exceptional cases (like the Expenses Scandal outcome). And as mySociety has reported [2], money spent responding to Freedom of Information requests also needs to be considered fairly in the context of wider public spending. In 2012 it was reported that Staffordshire County Council had spent £38,000 in a year responding to Freedom of Information requests. The then Director of mySociety, Tom Steinberg, commented:

“From this I can see that oversight by citizens and journalists cost only £38,000 from a yearly total budget of £1.3bn. I think it is fantastic that Staffordshire County Council can provide such information for only 0.002 per cent of its operating budget.”

Why does the government want to make itself less transparent? Even the Information Commissioner’s office has replied to the consultation to say that the Commissioner does not consider that significant changes to the core principles of the legislation are needed. This is a good law, that gives the public rights in our favour and transparency into how we are governed and tax money spent.

How will the value of FOI be measured of what would be lost if the changes are made?

What can you do?

The call for evidence is here and there is further guidance on the Campaign For Freedom of Information’s website. 38 Degrees have also put together this super-easy Plain English version.

To have your say in the consultation closing on November 20th go online.

Or simply call or write to your MP.  Today. This really matters.


References:

[1] Requests can be refused https://ico.org.uk/for-organisations/guide-to-freedom-of-information/refusing-a-request/

[2] MySociety opposes restrictions https://www.mysociety.org/2015/11/11/voices-from-whatdotheyknow-why-we-oppose-foi-act-restrictions/

[3] National Pupil Database FOI case study summary here

[4] My care.data programme board FOI case study summary here

Parliament’s talking about Talk Talk and Big Data, like some parents talk about sex. Too little, too late.

Parliament’s talking about Talk Talk and Big Data, like some parents talk about sex ed. They should be discussing prevention and personal data protection for all our personal data, not just one company, after the event.

Everyone’s been talking about TalkTalk and for all the wrong reasons. Data loss and a 15-year-old combined with a reportedly reckless response to data protection, compounded by lack of care.

As Rory Cellan-Jones wrote [1] rebuilding its reputation with customers and security analysts is going to be a lengthy job.

In Parliament Chi Onwarah, Shadow Minister for Culture & the Digital Economy, summed up in her question, asking the Minister to acknowledge “that all the innovation has come from the criminals while the Government sit on their hands, leaving it to businesses and consumers to suffer the consequences?”  [Hansard 2]

MPs were concerned for the 4 million* customers’ loss of name, date of birth, email, and other sensitive data, and called for an inquiry. [It may now be fewer*.] [3] The SciTech committee got involved too.

I hope this means Parliament will talk about TalkTalk not as the problem to be solved, but as one case study in a review of contemporary policy and practices in personal data handling.

Government spends money in data protection work in the [4] “National Cyber Security Programme”. [NCSP] What is the measurable outcome – particularly for TalkTalk customers and public confidence – from its £860M budget?  If you look at the breakdown of those sums, with little going towards data protection and security compared with the Home Office and Defence, we should ask if government is spending our money in an appropriately balanced way on the different threats it perceives. Keith Vaz suggested British companies that lose £34 billion every year to cybercrime. Perhaps this question will come into the inquiry.

This all comes after things have gone wrong.  Again [5]. An organisation we trusted has abused that trust by not looking after data with the stringency that customers should be able to expect in the 21st century, and reportedly not making preventative changes, apparent a year ago. Will there be consequences this time?

The government now saying it is talking about data protection and consequences, is like saying they’re talking sex education with teens, but only giving out condoms to the boys.

It could be too little too late. And they want above all to avoid talking about their own practices. Let’s change that.

Will this mean a review to end risky behaviour, bring in change, and be wiser in future?

If MPs explore what the NCSP does, then we the public, should learn more about what government’s expectations of commercial companies is in regards modern practices.

In addition, any MPs’ inquiry should address government’s own role in its own handling of the public’s personal data. Will members of government act in a responsible manner or simply tell others how to do so?

Public discussion around both commercial and state use of our personal data, should mean genuine public engagement. It should involve a discussion of consent where necessary for purposes  beyond those we expect or have explained when we submit our data, and there needs to be a change in risky behaviour in terms of physical storage and release practices, or all the talk, is wasted.

Some say TalkTalk’s  practices mean they have broken their contract along with consumer trust. Government departments should also be asking whether their data handling would constitute a breach of the public’s trust and reasonable expectations.

Mr Vaizey should apply his same logic to government handling data as he does to commercial handling. He said he is open to suggestions for improvement. [6]

Let’s not just talk about TalkTalk.

    • Let’s Talk Consequences: organisations taking risk seriously and meaningful consequences if not [7]
    • Let’s Talk Education: the education of the public on personal data use by others and rights and responsibilities we have [8]
    • Let’s Talk Parliament’s Policies and Practices: about its own complementary lack of data  understanding in government and understand what good practice is in physical storage, good governance and transparent oversight
    • Let’s Talk Public Trust: and the question whether government can be trusted with public data it already has and whether its current handling makes it trustworthy to take more [9]

Vaizey said of the ICO now in his own department: “The Government take the UK’s cyber-security extremely seriously and we will continue to do everything in our power to protect organisations and individuals from attacks.”

“I will certainly meet the Information Commissioner to look at what further changes may be needed in the light of this data breach. [..] It has extensive powers to take action and, indeed, to levy significant fines. “

So what about consequences when data are used in ways the public would consider a loss, and not through an attack or a breach, but government policy? [10]

Let’s Talk Parliament’s Policies and Practices

Commercial companies are not alone in screwing up the use and processing [11] management of our personal data. The civil service under current policy seems perfectly capable of doing by itself. [12]

Government data policy has not kept up with 21st century practices and to me seems to work in the dark, as Chi Onwarah said,

‘illuminated by occasional flashes of incompetence.’

This incompetence can risk harm to people’s lives, to business and to public confidence.

And once given, trust would be undermined by changing the purposes or scope of use for which it was given, for example as care.data plans to do after the pilot. A most risky idea.

Trust in these systems, whether commercial or state, is crucial. Yet reviews which highlight this, and make suggestions to support trust such as ‘data should never be (and currently is never) released with personal identifiers‘ in The Shakespeare Review have been ignored by government.

Where our personal data are not used well in government departments by the department themselves, they seem content to date to rely on public ignorance to get away with current shoddy practices.

Practices such as not knowing who all your customers are, because they pass data on to others. Practices, such as giving individual level identifiable personal data to third parties without informing the public, or asking for consent. Practices, such as never auditing or measuring any benefit of giving away others personal data.

“It is very important that all businesses, particularly those handling significant amounts of sensitive customer data, have robust procedures in place to protect those data and to inform customers when there may have been a data breach.” Ed Vaizey, Oct 26th, HOC

If government departments prove to be unfit to handle the personal data we submit in trust to the state today, would we be right to trust them with even more?

While the government is busy wagging fingers at commercial data use poor practices, the care.data debacle is evidence that not all its MPs or civil service understand how data are used in commercial business or through government departments.

MPs calling for commercial companies to sharpen up their data protection must understand how commercial use of data often piggy-backs the public use of our personal data, or others getting access to it via government for purposes that were unintended.

Let’s Talk Education

If the public is to understand how personal data are to be kept securely with commercial organisations, why should they not equally ask to understand how the state secures their personal data? Educating the public could lead to better engagement with research, better understanding of how we can use digital services and a better educated society as a whole. It seems common sense.

At a recent public event [13],  I asked civil servants talking about big upcoming data plans they announced, linking school data with more further education and employment data, I asked how they planned to involve the people whose data they would use. There was no public engagement to mention. Why not? Inexcusable in this climate.

Public engagement is a matter of trust and developing understanding in a relationship. Organisations must get this right.[14]

If government is discussing risky practices by commercial companies, they also need to look closer to home and fix what is broken in government data handling where it exposes us to risk through loss of control of our personal data.

The National Pupil Database for example, stores and onwardly shares identifiable individual sensitive data of at least 8m children’s records from age 2 -19. That’s twice as big as the TalkTalk loss was first thought to be.

Prevention not protection is what we should champion. Rather than protection after the events,  MPs and public must demand emphasis on prevention measures in our personal data use.

This week sees more debate on how and why the government will legislate to have more powers to capture more data about all the people in the country. But are government policy, process and practices fit to handle our personal data, what they do with it and who they give it to?

Population-wide gathering of data surveillance in any of its many forms is not any less real just because you don’t see it. Children’s health, schools, increases in volume of tax data collection. We don’t discuss enough how these policies can be used every day without the right oversight. MPs are like the conservative parents not comfortable talking to their teens about sleeping with someone. Just because you don’t know, it doesn’t mean they’re not doing it. [15] It just means you don’t want to know because if you find out they’re not doing it safely, you’ll have to do something about it.

And it might be awkward. (Meanwhile in schools real, meaningful PHSE has been left off the curriculum.)

Mr. Vaizey asked in the Commons for suggestions for improvement.

My suggestion is this. How government manages data has many options. But the principle should be simple. Our personal data needs not only protected, but not exposed to unnecessary risk in the first place, by commercial or state bodies. Doing nothing, is not an option.

Let’s Talk about more than TalkTalk

Teens will be teens. If commercial companies can’t manage their systems better to prevent a child successfully hacking it, then it’s not enough to point at criminal behaviour. There is fault to learn from on all sides. In commercial and state uses of personal data.

There is talk of new, and bigger, data sharing plans. [16]

Will the government wait to see  and keep its fingers crossed each month to see if our data are used safely at unsecured settings with some of these unknown partners data might be onwardly shared with, hoping we won’t find out and they won’t need to talk about it, or have a grown up public debate based on public education?

Will it put preventative measures in place appropriate to the sensitivity and volume of the data it is itself responsible for?

Will moving forward with new plans mean safer practices?

If government genuinely wants our administrative data at the heart of digital government fit for the 21st century, it must first understand how all government departments collect and use public data. And it must educate the public in this and commercial data use.

We need a fundamental shift in the way the government respects public opinion and shift towards legal and privacy compliance – both of which are lacking.

Let’s not talk about TalkTalk. Let’s have meaningful grown up debate with genuine engagement. Let’s talk about prevention measures in our data protection. Let’s talk about consent. It’s personal.

******

[1] Questions for TalkTalk: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-34636308

[2] Hansard: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmhansrd/cm151026/debtext/151026-0001.htm#15102612000004

[3] TalkTalk update: http://www.talktalkgroup.com/press/press-releases/2015/cyber-attack-update-tuesday-october-30-2015.aspx

[4] The Cyber Security Programme: http://www.civilserviceworld.com/articles/feature/depth-look-national-cyber-security-programme

[5] Paul reviews TalkTalk; https://paul.reviews/value-security-avoid-talktalk/

[6] https://ico.org.uk/for-organisations/guide-to-data-protection/conditions-for-processing/

[7] Let’s talk Consequences: the consequences of current failures to meet customers’ reasonable expectations of acceptable risk, are low compared with elsewhere.  As John Nicolson (East Dunbartonshire) SNP pointed out in the debate, “In the United States, AT&T was fined £17 million for failing to protect customer data. In the United Kingdom, the ICO can only place fines of up to £500,000. For a company that received an annual revenue of nearly £1.8 billion, a fine that small will clearly not be terrifying. The regulation of telecoms must be strengthened to protect consumers.”

[8] Let’s talk education: FOI request revealing a samples of some individual level data released to members of the press: http://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2015-10-26b.32.0

The CMA brought out a report in June, on the use of consumer data, the topic should be familiar in parliament, but little engagement has come about as a result. It suggested the benefit:

“will only be realised if consumers continue to provide data and this relies on them being able to trust the firms that collect and use it”, and that “consumers should know when and how their data is being collected and used and be able to decide whether and how to participate. They should have access to information from firms about how they are collecting, storing and using data.”

[9] Let’s Talk Public Trust – are the bodies involved Trustworthy? Government lacks an effective data policy and is resistant to change. Yet it wants to collect ever more personal and individual level for unknown purposes from the majority of 60m people, with an unprecedented PR campaign.  When I heard the words ‘we want a mature debate’ it was reminiscent of HSCIC’s ‘intelligent grown up debate’ requested by Kinglsey Manning, in a speech when he admitted lack of public knowledge was akin to a measure of past success, and effectively they would rather have kept the use of population wide health data ‘below the radar’.

Change: We need change, the old way after all, didn’t work, according to Minister Matt Hancock: “The old model of government has failed, so we will build a new one.” I’d like to see what that new one will look like. Does he mean to expand only data sharing policy, or the powers of the civil service?

[10] National Pupil Database detailed data releases to third parties https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/pupil_data_national_pupil_databa

[11] http://adrn.ac.uk/news-events/latest-news/adrn-rssevent

[12] https://jenpersson.com/public-trust-datasharing-nib-caredata-change/

[13] https://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/human-rights/privacy/state-surveillance

[14] http://www.computerweekly.com/news/4500256274/Government-will-tackle-barriers-to-sharing-and-linking-data-says-Cabinet-Office-minister-Hancock

Free School Meals: A political football and the need for research to referee

I wrote this post in July 2014, before the introduction of the universal infant free school meals programme (UIFSM) and before I put my interest in data to work. Here’s an updated version. My opinion why I feel it is vital that  public health and socio economic research should create an evidence base that justifies or refutes policy. 

I wondered last year whether our children’s health and the impact of UIFSM was simply a political football, which was given as a concession in the last Parliament, rushed through to get checked-off, without being properly checked out first?

How is UIFSM Entitlement Measured and What Data do we Have?

I have wondered over this year how the new policy which labels more children as entitled to free school meals may affect public health and social research.

The Free School Meal (FSM) indicator has been commonly used as a socio-economic indicator.

In fact, there is still a practical difference within the ‘free school meals’ label.

In my county, West Sussex, those who are entitled to FSM beyond infants must actively register online. Although every child in Reception, Years 1 and 2  is automatically entitled to UIFSM, parents in receipt of the state income benefits must actively register with county to have an FSM eligibility check, so that schools receive the Pupil Premium.  Strangely having to register for ‘Free School Meals’ where others need not under automatic entitlement in infants – because it’s not called as it probably should be ‘sign up for Pupil Premium’ which benefits the school budget and one hopes, the child with support or services they would not otherwise get.

Registering for a free school meal eligibility check could raise an extra grant of £1,320 per year, per child, for the child’s primary school, or £935 per child for secondary schools, to fund valuable support like extra tuition, additional teaching staff or after school activities. [source]

Researchers will need to give up the FSM indicator used as an adopted socio-economic function in age groups under 8. Over 8 (once children leave infants) only those entitled due to welfare status and actively  registered will have the FSM label. Any comparative research can only use the Pupil Premium status, but as the benefits which permit applying for it changed too, comparison will be hard. An obvious and important change to remember measuring  the effects of the policy change have had.

One year on, I’d also like to understand how research may capture the changes of children’s experience in reality.

There are challenges in this; not least getting hold of the data. Given that private providers may not all be open to provision of information, do not provide data as open data, and separately, are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, we may not be able to find out the facts around the changes and how catering meets the needs of some of our youngest children.

If it can be hard to access information from private providers held by them, it can be even harder to do research in the public interest using information about them. In my local area Capita manages a local database and the meal providers are private companies. (No longer staff directly employed and accountable to schools as once was).

[updated Aug 30 HT Owen Boswara for the link to the Guardian article in March 2015 reporting that there are examples where this has cut the Pupil Premium uptake]

Whom does it benefit most?

Quantity or Quality and Equality?

In last year’s post I considered food quality and profit for the meal providers.

I would now be interested to see research on what changes if any there have been in the profit and costs of school meal providers since the UIFSM introduction and what benefits we see for them compared with children.

4 in 10 children are classed as living in poverty but may not meet welfare benefit criteria according to Nick Clegg, on LBC on Sept 5th 2014. That was a scandalous admission of the whole social system failure on child poverty. Hats off to the nine year-old who asked good questions last year.

The entitlement is also not applied to all primary children equally, but infants only. So within one family some children are now entitled and others are not.

I wonder if this has reshaped family evening meals for those who do not quite qualify for FSM, where now one child has already ‘had a hot meal today’ and others have not?

The whole programme of child health in school is not only unequal in application to children by age, but is not made to apply to all schools equally.

Jamie Oliver did his darnedest to educate and bring in change, showing school meals needed improvement in quality across the board. What has happened to those quality improvements he championed? Abandoned at least in free school where schools are exempt from national standards. [update: Aug 25 his recent comment].

There is clearly need when so many children are growing up in an unfairly distributed society of have and have-not, but the gap seems to be ever wider. Is Jamie right that in England eating well is a middle class concern? Is it impossible in this country to eat cheaply and eat well?

In summary, I welcome anything that will help families feed their children well. But do free school dinners necessarily mean good nutrition? The work by the Trussel Trust and others, shows what desperate measures are needed to help children who need it most and simply ‘a free school meal’ is not necessarily a ticket to good food, without rigorous application and monitoring of standards, including reviewing in schools what is offered vs what children actually eat from the offering.

Where is the analysis for people based policy that will tackle the causes of need, and assess if those needs are being met?

Evidence based understanding

It appears there were pilots and trials but we hadn’t heard much about them before September 2014. I agreed with then MP David Laws, on the closure of school kitchens, but from my own experience, the UIFSM programme lacked adequate infrastructure and education before it began.

Mr. Laws MP said,

“It is going to be one of the landmark social achievements of this coalition government – good for attainment, good for health, great for British food, and good for hard working families. Ignore the critics who want to snipe from the sidelines.”

I don’t want to be a critic from the sidelines, I’d like to be an informed citizen and a parent and know that this programme brought in good food for good health. Good for very child, but I’d like to know it brought the necessary change for the children who really needed it. [Ignoring his comment on hard working families, which indicates some sort of value judgement and out of place.]

Like these people and their FOIs, I want to ask and understand. Will this have a positive effect on the nutrition children get, which may be inadequate today?

How will we measure if UIFSM is beneficial to children who need it most?

Data used well gives insights into society that researchers should use to learn from and make policy recommendations.

The data from the meal providers and the data on UIFSM indicators as well as Pupil Premium need looked at together. That won’t be easy.

What is accessible is the data held by the DfE but that may also be “off” for true comparison because the need for active sign up is reportedly patchy.

Data on individual pupils needs used with great care due to these measurement changes in practice as well as its sensitivity. To measure that the policy is working needs careful study accounting for all the different factors that changed at the same time. The NPD has pupil premium tracked but has its uptake affected the numbers as to make it a useful comparator?

Using this administrative data  — aggregated and open data — and at other detailed levels for bona fide research is vital to understand if policies work. The use of administrative data for research has widespread public support in the public interest, as long as it is done well and not for commercial use.

To make it more usefully available, and as I posted previously, I believe the Department of Education should shape up its current practices in its capacity as the data processor and controller of the National Pupil Database to be fit for the 21st century if it is to meet public expectations of how it should be done.

Pupils and parents should be encouraged to become more aware about information used about them, in the same way that the public should be encouraged to understand how that information is being used to shape policy.

At the same time as access to state held data could be improved, we should also demand that access to information for public health and social benefit should be required from private providers. Public researchers must be prepare to stand up and defend this need, especially at a time when Freedom of Information is also under threat and should in fact expanded to cover private providers like these, not be restricted further.

Put together, this data in secure settings with transparent oversight could be invaluable in the public interest. Being seen to do things well and seeing public benefits from the data will also future-proof public trust that is vital to research. It could be better for everyone.

So how and when will we find out how the UIFSM policy change made a difference?

What did UIFSM ever do for us?

At a time when so many changes have taken place around child health, education, poverty and its measurement it is vital that public health and socio economic research creates an evidence base that justifies or refutes policy.

In some ways, neutral academic researchers play the role of referee.

There are simple practical things which UIFSM policy ignores, such as 4 year-olds starting school usually start on packed lunch only for a half term to get to grips with the basics of school, without having to manage trays and getting help to cut up food. The length of time they need for a hot meal is longer than packed lunch. How these things have affected starting school is intangible.

Other tangible concerns need more attention, many of which have been reported in drips of similar feedback such as reduced school hall and gym access affecting all primary age children (not only infants) because the space needs to be used for longer due to the increase in numbers eating hot meals.

Research to understand the availability of facilities and time spent on sport in schools since the introduction of UIFSM will be interesting to look at together with child obesity rates.

The child poverty measurements also moved this year. How will this influence our perception of poverty and policies that are designed to tackle it?

Have we got the data to analyse these policy changes? Have we got analysis of the policy changes to see if they benefit children?

As a parent and citizen, I’d like to understand who positions the goalposts in these important public policies and why.

And who is keeping count of the score?

****

image source: The Independent

refs: Helen Barnard, JRF. http://www.jrf.org.uk/blog/2015/06/cutting-child-benefit-increasing-free-childcare-where-poverty-test

The National Pupil Database end of year report: an F in Fair Processing

National Pupil Database? What National Pupil Database? Why am I on it?

At the start of the school year last September 2014, I got the usual A4 pieces of paper. Each of my children’s personal details, our home address and contact details, tick boxes for method of transport each used to get to school, types of school meal eaten all listed, and a privacy statement at the bottom:

“Data Protection Act 1988: The school is registered under the Data Protection Act for holding personal data. The school has a duty to protect this information and to keep it up to date. The school is required to share some of the data with the Local Authority and with the DfE.”

There was no mention of the DfE sharing it onwards with anyone else. But they do, through the National Pupil Database [NPD] and  it is enormous [1].  It’s a database which holds personal information of every child who has ever been in state education since 2002, some data since 1996. [That includes me as both a student AND a parent.]

“Never heard of it?”

Well neither have I from my school, which is what I pointed out to the DfE in September 2014.

School heads, governors, and every parent I have spoken with in my area and beyond, are totally unaware of the National Pupil database. All are surprised. Some are horrified at the extent of data sharing at such an identifiable and sensitive level, without school and parental knowledge.[2]

Here’s a list what it holds. Fully identifiable data at unique, individual level. Tiered from 1-4, where 1 is the most sensitive. A full list of what data is available in each of the tiers and standard extracts can be found in the ‘NPD data tables’.

K5

I’d like to think it has not been deliberately hidden from schools and parents. I hope it has simply been careless about its communications.

Imagine that the data once gathered only for administration since 1996, was then decided about at central level and they forgot to tell the people whom they should have been asking. The data controllers and subjects the data were from – the schools, parents/guardians and pupils – were forgotten. That could happen when you see data as a commodity and not as people’ s personal histories.

The UK appears to have gathered admin data for years until the coalition decided it was an asset it could further exploit. The DfE may have told others in 2002 and in 2012 when it shaped policy on how the NPD would be used, but it forgot to tell the children whose information it is and used them without asking. In my book, that’s an abuse of power and misuse of data.

It seems to me that current data policies in practice across all areas of government have simply drifted at national level towards ever greater access by commercial users.

And although that stinks, it has perhaps arisen from lack of public transparency and appropriate oversight, rather than some nefarious intent.

Knowingly failing to inform schools, pupils and guardians how the most basic of our personal data are used is outdated and out of touch with public feeling. Not to mention, that it fails fair processing under Data Protection law.

Subject Access Request – User experience gets an ‘F’ for failing

The submission of the school census, including a set of named pupil records, is a statutory requirement on schools.

This means that children and parents data, regardless of how well or poorly informed they may be, are extracted for administrative purposes, and are used in addition to those we would expect, for various secondary reasons.

Unless the Department for Education makes schools aware of the National Pupil Database use and users, the Department fails to provide an adequate process to enable schools to meet their local data protection requirements. If schools don’t know, they can’t process data properly.

So I wrote to the Department for Education (DfE) in September 2014, including the privacy notice used in schools like ours, showing it fails to inform parents how our children’s personal data and data about us (as related parent/guardians) are stored and onwardly used by the National Pupil Database (NPD). And I asked three questions:

1. I would like to know what information is the minimum you require for an individual child from primary schools in England?

2. Is there an opt out to prevent this sharing and if so, under what process can parents register this?

3. Is there a mechanism for parents to restrict the uses of the data (i.e. opt out our family data) with third parties who get data from the National Pupil Database?

I got back some general information, but no answer to my three questions.

What data do you hold and share with third parties about my children?

In April 2015 I decided to find out exactly what data they held, so I made a subject access request [SAR], expecting to see the data they held about my children. They directed me to ask my children’s school instead and to ask for their educational record. The difficulty with that is, it’s a different dataset.

My school is not the data controller of the National Pupil Database. I am not asking for a copy of my children’s educational records held by the school, but what information that the NPD holds about me and my children. One set of data may feed the other but they are separately managed. The NPD is the data controller for that data it holds and as such I believe has data controller responsibility for it, not the school they attend.

Why do I care? Well for starters, I want to know if the data are accurate.  And I want to know who else has access to it and for what purposes – school can’t tell me that. They certainly couldn’t two months ago, as they had no idea the NPD existed.

I went on to ask the DfE for a copy of the publicly accessible subject access request (SAR) policy and procedures, aware that I was asking on behalf of my children. I couldn’t find any guidance, so asked for the SAR policy. They helpfully provided some advice, but I was then told:

“The department does not have a publicly accessible standard SAR policy and procedures document.”  and “there is not an expectation that NPD data be made available for release in response to a SAR.”

It seems policies are inconsistent. For this other DfE project, there is information about the database, how participants can opt out and  respecting your choice. On the DfE website a Personal Information Charter sets out “what you can expect when we ask for and hold your personal information.”

It says: “Under the terms of the Data Protection Act 1998, you’re entitled to ask us:

  • if we’re processing your personal data
  • to give you a description of the data we hold about you, the reasons why we’re holding it and any recipient we may disclose it to (eg Ofsted)
  • for a copy of your personal data and any details of its source

You’re also entitled to ask us to change the information we hold about you, if it is wrong.

To ask to see your personal data (make a ‘subject access request’), or to ask for clarification about our processing of your personal data, contact us via the question option on our contact form and select ‘other’.”

So I did. But it seems while it applies to that project,  Subject Access Request is not to apply to the data they hold in the NPD. And they finally rejected my request last week, stating it is exempt:

SAR_reject

I appealed the decision on the basis that the section 33 Data Protection Act criteria given, are not met:

“the data subject was made fully aware of the use(s) of their personal data (in the form of a privacy notice)”

But it remains rejected.

It seems incomprehensible that third parties can access my children’s data and I can’t even check to see if it is correct.

While acknowledging section 7 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) “an individual has the right to ask an organisation to provide them with information they hold which identifies them and, in certain circumstances, a parent can make such a request on behalf of a child” they refused citing the Research, History and Statistics exemption (i.e. section 33(4) of the DPA).

Fair processing, another F for failure and F for attitude

The Department of Education response to me said that it “makes it clear what information is held, why it is held, the uses made of it by DfE and its partners and publishes a statement on its website setting this out. Schools also inform parents and pupils of how the data is used through privacy notices.”

I have told the DfE the process does not work. The DfE / NPD web instructions do not reach parents. Even if they did, information is thoroughly inadequate and either deliberately hides or does so by omission, the commercial third party use of data.

The Department for Education made a web update on 03/07/2015 with privacy information to be made available to parents by schools: http://t.co/PwjN1cwe6r

Despite this update this year, it is inadequate on two counts. In content and communication.

To claim as they did in response to me that: “The Department makes it clear to children and their parents what information is held about pupils and how it is processed, through a statement on its website,” lacks any logic.

Updating their national web page doesn’t create a thorough communications process or engage anyone who does not know about it to start with.

Secondly, the new privacy policy is inadequate in it content and utterly confusing. What does this statement mean, is there now some sort of opt out on offer? I doubt it, but it is unclear:

“A parent/guardian can ask that no information apart from their child’s name, address and date of birth be passed to [insert name of local authority or the provider of Youth Support Services in your area] by informing [insert name of school administrator]. This right is transferred to the child once he/she reaches the age 16. For more information about services for young people, please go to our local authority website [insert link].” [updated privacy statement, July 3, 2015]

Information that I don’t know exists, about a database I don’t know exists, that my school does not know exists, they believe meets fair processing through a statement on its own website?

Appropriate at this time of year,  I have to ask, “you cannot be serious?”

Fair processing means transparently sharing the purpose or purposes for which you intend to process the information, not hiding some of the users through careful wording.

It thereby fails to legally meet the first data protection principle. as parents are not informed at all, never mind fully of further secondary uses.

As a parent, when I register my child for school, I of course expect that some personal details must be captured to administer their education.

There must be data shared to adequately administer, best serve, understand, and sometimes protect our children.  And bona fide research is in the public interest.

However I have been surprised in the last year to find that firstly, I can’t ask what is stored on my own children and that secondly, a wide range of sensitive data are shared through the Department of Education with third parties.

Some of these potential third parties don’t meet research criteria in my understanding of what a ‘researcher’ should be. Journalists? the MOD?

To improve, there would be little additional time or work burden required to provide proper fair processing as a starting point, but to do so, the department can’t only update a policy on its website and think it’s adequate. And the newly updated suggested text for pupils is only going to add confusion.

The privacy policy text needs carefully reworded in human not civil service speak.

It must not omit [as it does now] the full range of potential users.

After all the Data Protection principles state that: “If you wish to use or disclose personal data for a purpose that was not contemplated at the time of collection (and therefore not specified in a privacy notice), you have to consider whether this will be fair.”

Now that it must be obvious to DfE that it is not the best way to carry on, why would they choose NOT to do better? Our children deserve better.

What would better look like? See part 3. The National Pupil Database end of year report: a D in transparency, C minus in security.

*****

[PS: I believe the Freedom of Information Officer tried their best and was professional and polite in our email exchanges, B+. Can’t award an A as I didn’t get any information from my requests. Thank you to them for their effort.]

*****

Updated on Sunday 19th July to include the criteria of my SAR rejection.

1. Our children’s school data: an end of year report card
2. The National Pupil Database end of year report: an F in fair processing
3. The National Pupil Database end of year report: a D in transparency, C minus in security

References:

[1] The National Pupil Database user guide: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/261189/NPD_User_Guide.pdf

[2] The Department for Education has specific legal powers to collect pupil, child and workforce data held by schools, local authorities and awarding bodies under section 114 of the Education Act 2005section 537A of the Education Act 1996, and section 83 of the Children Act 1989. The submission of the school census returns, including a set of named pupil records, is a statutory requirement on schools under Section 537A of the Education Act 1996.

[3] Data tables to see the individual level data items stored and shared (by tabs on the bottom of the file) https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-pupil-database-user-guide-andsupporting-information

[4] The table to show who has bought or received data and for what purpose https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-pupil-database-requests-received

[5] Data Trust Deficit – from the RSS: http://www.statslife.org.uk/news/1672-new-rss-research-finds-data-trust-deficit-with-lessons-for-policymakers

[6] Talk by Phil Booth and Terri Dowty: http://www.infiniteideasmachine.com/2013/04/terris-and-my-talk-on-the-national-pupil-database-at-the-open-data-institute/

[7] Presentation given by Paul Sinclair of the Department for Education at the Workshop on Evaluating the Impact of Youth Programmes, 3rd June 2013

The National Pupil Database end of year report: D for transparency, C minus in security.

Transparency and oversight of how things are administered are simple ways that the public can both understand and trust that things run as we expect.

For the National Pupil Database, parents might be surprised, as I was about some of the current practices.

The scope of use and who could access the National Pupil Database was changed in 2012 and although I had three children at school at that time and heard nothing about it, nor did I read it in the papers. (Hah – time to read the papers?)  So I absolutely agree with Owen Boswara’s post when he wrote:

“There appears to have been no concerted effort to bring the consultation or the NPD initiative to the attention of parents or pupils (i.e. the data subjects themselves). This is a quote from one of the parents who did respond:

“I am shocked and appalled that I wasn’t notified about this consultation through my child’s school – I read about it on Twitter of all things. A letter should have gone to every single parent explaining the proposals and how to respond to this consultation.”

(Now imagine that sentiment amplified via Mumsnet …)”
[July 2013, blog by O. Boswara]

As Owen wrote,  imagine that sentiment amplified via Mumsnet indeed.

Here’s where third parties can apply and here’s a list of who has been given data from the National Pupil Database . (It’s only been updated twice in 18 months. The most recent of which has been since I’ve asked about it, in .) The tier groups 1-4 are explained here on p.18, where 1 is the most sensitive identifiable classification.

The consultation suggested in 2012 that the changes could be an “effective engine of economic growth, social wellbeing, political accountability and public service improvement.”.  

Has this been measured at all if the justification given has begun to be achieved? Often research can take a long time and implementing any changes as a result, more time. But perhaps there has been some measure of public benefit already begun to be accrued?

The release panel would one hope, have begun to track this. [update: DfE confirmed August 20th they do not track benefits, nor have ever done any audit of recipients]

And in parallel what oversight governs checks and balances to make sure that the drive for the ‘engine of economic growth’ remembers to treat these data as knowledge about our children?

Is there that level of oversight from application to benefits measurement?

Is there adequate assessment of privacy impact and ethics in applications?

Why the National Pupil Database troubles me, is not the data it contains per se, but the lack of child/guardian involvement, lack of accountable oversight how it is managed and full transparency around who it is used by and its processes.

Some practical steps forward

Taken now, steps could resolve some of these issues and avoid the risk of them becoming future issues of concern.

The first being thorough fair processing, as I covered in my previous post.

The submission of the school census returns, including a set of named pupil records, has been a statutory requirement on schools since the Education Act 1996. That’s almost twenty years ago in the pre-mainstream internet age.

The Department must now shape up its current governance practices in its capacity as the data processor and controller of the National Pupil Database, to be fit for the 21st century.

Ignoring current weaknesses, actively accepts an ever-increasing reputational risk for the Department, schools, other data sharing bodies or those who link to the data and its bona fide research users. If people lose trust in data uses, they won’t share at all and the quality of data will suffer, bad for functional admin of the state and individual, but also for the public good.

That concerns me also wearing my hat as a lay member on the ADRN panel because it’s important that the public trusts our data is looked after wisely so that research can continue to use it for advances in health and social science and all sorts of areas of knowledge to improve our understanding of society and make it better.

Who decides who gets my kids data, even if I can’t?

A Data Management Advisory Panel (DMAP) considers applications for only some of the applications, tier 1 data requests. Those are the most, but not the only applications for access to sensitive data.

“When you make a request for NPD data it will be considered for approval by the Education Data Division (EDD) with the exception of tier 1 data requests, which will be assessed by the department’s Data Management Advisory Panel. The EDD will inform you of the outcome of the decision.”

Where is governance transparency?

What is the make up of both the Data Management Advisory Panel and and the Education Data Division (EDD)? Who sits on them and how are they selected? Do they document their conflicts of interest for each application? For how long are they appointed and under what selection criteria?

Where is decision outcome transparency?

The outcome of the decision should be documented and published. However, the list has been updated only twice since its inception in 2012. Once was December 2013, and the most recently was, ahem, May 18 2015. After considerable prodding. There should be a regular timetable, with responsible owner and a depth of insight into its decision making.

Where is transparency over decision making to approve or reject requests?

Do privacy impact assessments and ethics reviews play any role in their application and if so, how are they assessed and by whom?

How are those sensitive and confidential data stored and governed?

The weakest link in any system is often said to be human error. Users of the NPD data vary from other government departments to “Mom and Pop” small home businesses, selling schools’ business intelligence and benchmarking.

So how secure are our children’s data really, and once the data have left the Department database, how are they treated? Does lots of form filling and emailed data with a personal password ensure good practice, or simply provide barriers to slow down the legitimate applications process?

What happens to data that are no longer required for the given project? Are they properly deleted and what audits have ever been carried out to ensure that?

The National Pupil Database end of year report: a C- in security

The volume of data that can be processed now at speed is incomparable with 1996, and even 2012 when the current processes were set up. The opportunities and risks in cyber security have also moved on.

Surely the Department for Education should take responsibility seriously to treat our children’s personal data and sensitive records equally as well as the HSCIC now intends to manage health data?

Processing administrative or linked data in an environment with layered physical security (e.g. a secure perimeter, CCTV, security guarding or a locked room without remote connection such as internet access) is good practice. And reduces the risk of silly, human error. Or  simple theft.

Is giving out chunks of raw data by email, with reams of paperwork as its approval ‘safeguards’ really fit for the 21st century and beyond?

tiers

Twenty years on from the conception of the National Pupil Database, it is time to treat the personal data of our future adult citizens with the respect it deserves and we expect of best-in-class data management.

It should be as safe and secure as we treat other sensitive government data, and lessons could be learned from the FARR, ADRN and HSCIC safe settings.

Back to school – more securely, with public understanding and transparency

Understanding how that all works, how technology and people, data sharing and privacy, data security and trust all tie together is fundamental to understanding the internet. When administrations take our data, they take on responsibilities for some of our participation in dot.everyone that the state is so keen for us all to take part in. Many of our kids will live in the world which is the internet of things.  Not getting that, is to not understand the Internet.

And to reiterate some of why that matters, I go back to my previous post in which I quoted Martha Lane Fox recently and the late Aaron Swartz when he said: “It’s not OK not understand the internet, anymore”.

While the Department of Education has turned down my subject access request to find out what the National Pupil Database stores on my own children, it matters too much to brush the issues aside, as only important for me. About 700,000 children are born each year and will added to this database every academic year. None ever get deleted.

Parents can, and must ask that it is delivered to the highest standards of fair processing, transparency, oversight and security. I’m certainly going to.

It’s going to be Back to School in September, and those annual privacy notices, all too soon.

*****

1. The National Pupil Database end of year report card

2. The National Pupil Database end of year report: an F in fair processing

3. The National Pupil Database end of year report: a D in transparency

References:

[1] The National Pupil Database user guide: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/261189/NPD_User_Guide.pdf

[2] Data tables to see the individual level data items stored and shared (by tabs on the bottom of the file) https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-pupil-database-user-guide-andsupporting-information

[3] The table to show who has bought or received data and for what purpose https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-pupil-database-requests-received

[4] Data Trust Deficit – from the RSS: http://www.statslife.org.uk/news/1672-new-rss-research-finds-data-trust-deficit-with-lessons-for-policymakers

[5] Talk by Phil Booth and Terri Dowty: http://www.infiniteideasmachine.com/2013/04/terris-and-my-talk-on-the-national-pupil-database-at-the-open-data-institute/

[6] Presentation given by Paul Sinclair of the Department for Education at the Workshop on Evaluating the Impact of Youth Programmes, 3rd June 2013

What is in the database?

The Schools Census dataset contains approximately eight million records incrementally every year (starting in 1996) and includes variables on the pupil’s home postcode, gender, age, ethnicity, special educational needs (SEN), free school meals eligibility, and schooling history. It covers pupils in state-funded primary, secondary, nursery, special schools and pupil referral units. Schools that are entirely privately funded are not included.

Pupils can be tracked across schools. Pupils can now be followed throughout their school careers. And it provides a very rich set of data on school characteristics. There is further use by linking the data from other related datasets such as those on higher education, neighbourhoods and teachers in schools.

Data stored include the full range of personal and sensitive data from name, date of birth and address, through SEN and disability needs. (Detail of content is here.)  To see what is in it download the excel sheet : NPD Requests.

 

The Department for Education has specific legal powers to collect pupil, child and workforce data held by schools, local authorities and awarding bodies under section 114 of the Education Act 2005section 537A of the Education Act 1996, and section 83 of the Children Act 1989. The submission of the school census returns, including a set of named pupil records, is a statutory requirement on schools under Section 537A of the Education Act 1996.