Peter Hoskin

Davis’s data protection tract

Davis's data protection tract
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David Davis contra Google and, perhaps, the Conservative leadership too.  That's what we get this morning in a Times comment piece by the former shadow Home Secretary.  He's taking issue with Tory plans to employ a free-to-use system like Google Health to store and manage all our health data.  Here's the gist of his argument:

"Google is the last company I would trust with data belonging to me. In the words of human rights watchdog Privacy International, Google has 'a history of ignoring privacy concerns. Every corporate announcement has some new practice involving surveillance'. It gave Google the lowest possible assessment rating: 'hostile to privacy'. It was the only company of the 20 assessed to get this rating. It also said Google was leading a 'race to the bottom' among internet firms, many of which did little to protect their users.

This highlights how careful we must be in using private companies to handle personal data. Actual and potential misuse of such data will be a recurrent public concern of the next several decades. This is because of the huge commercial value of a near-monopoly internet presence, combined with legally unfettered use of personal data. This is what gives Google a market capitalisation of $130 billion (£79 billion). It represents the value of exploiting its customers’ private data for commercial ends."

This is one of those cases where arguments on both side of the debate are attractive.  On the "for Google Health" side: why should taxpayers fork our £billions for NHS supercomputers, when there are better, cheaper alternatives - especially as people already trust Google, and a host of other online organisations, with their banking details and much more besides?  On the "against Google Health" side: the privacy concerns outlined by Davis above.  In which case, the middleground mined by Davis sounds quite sensible: use a commercial company, but impose upon it a series of limitations, such as that data must be held on UK computers, with "no possibility of trasnfer".

To be fair to the Tory leadership, they could actually be thinking along similar lines to Davis.  Little has been confirmed about their plans for health data yet, and it's not even certain that they'll be using Google Health.  In which case, they might prefer to look on Davis's piece as a contribution to the policy debate, rather than a backbench provocation.