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More data should be released, but only with extra anonymity checks, says Government

Government departments must conduct tests to make sure that blocks of data they release do not result in the identification of individuals when combined with blocks of other released data. 02 Jul 2012

Though departments will anonymise data, they must make sure that it cannot be combined with other information to identify individuals, a new Government paper has said.

In a white paper on open data  published last week the Cabinet Office said that Government departments would have to conduct 'disclosure testing' in circumstances where they have "concerns regarding the potential unintended identification of individuals" when deciding whether to publish datasets.

The testing should be used to "explore the threats that could exist as a result of releasing a dataset", it added. The Government said the "new requirement" would complement the departments' existing obligations to conduct privacy impact assessments (PIAs) when determining whether to release information.

"PIAs and effective disclosure testing provide the infrastructure for Government to pursue transparency and privacy simultaneously," the Government said in the white paper. (52-page / 547KB PDF)

Under the Government's plans Government departments are to take a greater lead in publishing information that may not previously have been made public.

Each Government department has committed to an open data strategy for "proactively publishing data over the next two years." Information about doctors' performances and how departments use and manage EU funding as well as datasets on the results of international aid projects are among the details that will be made public, the Cabinet Office said.

"The data has the ability to change people’s lives for the better and will give businesses the raw material they need to create new products and services, which will in turn create jobs and growth," the Cabinet Office said in a statement.

However, whilst the Government's aim has been to increase transparency over data held by the Government it has acknowledged that there are privacy concerns in publishing personal data.

To address these concerns a "privacy expert" will be appointed to the Public Sector Transparency Board (PSTB), the group set up to monitor and encourage the publication of data, it said.

"The privacy expert will be able to provide informed opinion and guidance on the correct application of existing laws in instances where the opening up of more public data is recommended by the Transparency Board," the white paper said.

Privacy experts will also be appointed to the transparency boards that exist in individual Government departments and will provide similar functions, according to the plans.

The PSTB has previously published its open data principles, which include requiring departments to make datasets available in a reusable format.

The Government wants to make it easier for individuals to access information. It said that the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) could be asked to "regulate a right to data", on top of its existing oversight of freedom of information laws, to ensure that departments are making information available to the public.

“We welcome the publication of today’s Open Data White Paper and its recognition that transparency and openness must be central to the way modern public authorities operate," Information Commissioner Christopher Graham said in a statement. "The proposals complement the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act and so support the accountability of public authorities."

"The paper also recognises the privacy concerns that must be addressed if these proposals are to be successful," he said.

"We will continue to work with the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Justice to ensure that the open data agenda and the government’s wider data sharing proposals increase transparency and accountability, while respecting the privacy rights of the UK citizen," Graham added.

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