The Tories claim the data protection bill will make us safer. That’s not true

19 Feb 2018
The government’s growing store of personal details allows automatic adjudication on crucial aspects of our lives writes Diane Abbott MP

Is your data safe? The answer must be no if this government manages to push through its data protection bill without important amendments. The Tory claim that the bill is necessary for protecting our data is false.
It is widely understood that a host of government bodies and businesses harvest and amass electronic data from all of us. There is also a widespread consensus that this  information-gathering and distribution needs regulation, and that individuals need protection.
But there is a policy chasm between this government and those of us who believe that the protection of citizens includes protection from the state. The government has a strange fixed idea that the state only acts in the general and individual good. Every draconian measure is justified with the argument that only guilty people need to be worried.
Yet decades of struggling for civil liberties, and fighting against specific instances of injustice, tell us that is simply not true.
There are two main failings in the data protection bill that’s working its way through parliament.
The first is that, with the increasingly sophisticated techniques available to programmers, state agencies can use technology that automatically adjudicates on the rights of the individual. This could be any one of a number of agencies, not solely confined to the police or security services. The Department for Work and Pensions is one agency that could deploy purely automatic decision making, without any human involvement and, taken singly, it provides a catalogue of horror stories of misapplied rules, delayed processes, mistaken details, lost forms and callous disregard for the rights and needs of the individual.
The other concern is that immigration status is currently exempt in the bill from any of these data protections. This could have widespread implications, and not only for migrants.
This government is targeting migrants, whether or not they have a right to be here. While the number of Border Force guards, whose job it is to prevent illegal migration, people-trafficking and other abuses, has been cut, the schools system, the health service and other public agencies are being press-ganged into gathering intelligence on the immigration status of people coming through their doors, or that of their children or loved ones.
The exemption for immigration status in the bill means that public agencies can share this information and relay it to the Home Office for action. Of course, this applies to people who are merely suspected of being immigrants, perhaps because of their name or the colour of their  skin, but who are entitled to be here.
The same individuals or families could find themselves repeatedly hounded by agencies regarding their immigration status, even when they are entitled to be in the UK as residents, or they are applying for leave to remain.
There is a multitude of cases where the information held by public bodies is plain wrong but that, too, may be distributed widely, sometimes with devastating consequences. The independent chief inspector of borders and immigration found that driving licences had been revoked, bank accounts closed and deportations enacted using faulty immigration information.
Legal opinion suggests this exemption is so blatantly discriminatory it may be struck down as incompatible with the European convention on human rights. But the government must have received similar advice and is ploughing ahead regardless. It seems law, rights, and blatant discrimination are not as important to it as maintaining its constant anti-migrant campaign.

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