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Government plans Council of Data Science Ethics



Response to committee report agrees on need for ethical framework, but deflects call for data protection audits in local government

The Government has agreed to the creation of a Council of Data Science Ethics and the development of an ethical framework for data science in government.

It has told Parliament's Science and Technology Committee that it will go along with the recommendation in its The big data dilemma report, published in February. But it has delayed a definitive answer to another recommendation for local government to be subject to data protection audits by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO).

The Government's newly published response document says it recognises the need for leadership in the use of data science, and that is ready to consider how a Council for Data Science Ethics should be established. It suggests the Alan Turing Institute could play a leading role, and says the new body will address key ethical challenges.

Cabinet Office role

It also points out that the Cabinet Office is developing an ethical framework and that some departments have their own committees to specialise in the field.

The move has a growing significance for the Government as it seeks to integrate data science more fully into its long term planning through the Government Data Science Partnership.

Nicola Blackwood MP (pictured), chair of the committee, said: "Big data has enormous potential to improve public services and business productivity, but there are also justified privacy concerns when personal data is used in new applications, services and research. Getting the balance between the benefits and the risks right is vital.

“I am pleased therefore that the Government has accepted our call to set up a Council of Data Science Ethics to address the growing legal and ethical challenges associated with balancing privacy, anonymisation of data, security and public benefit ."

The MPs recommendation for the ICO to run compulsory data protection audits in local authorities met a more cautious response. The Government says it would need a consultation of the interested parties and it wants to assess the benefits against the burdens of any new regulations.

It also says there has been a sharp improvement in local government's performance in data security.

“Instead, we feel that local authorities should continue to be provided with support to further improve their performance on handling personal information,” it says.

On course

On most of the MPs' other recommendations the response takes the line that the Government is already taking relevant action. This includes developing big data skills in central and local government, setting out a strategy for the relevant infrastructure development, and setting out a data anonymisation strategy.

It relates several of these to its development of a new Government Digital Strategy, although there is still no clear indication of when this will be published.

Picture by Bianca D'orsi via Wikimedia Commons

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