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Government portal probed by data watchdog in light of Brexit

Image credit: Piotr Swat | Dreamstime.com

The UK’s data and privacy watchdog is investigating how personal data on the Government’s main website, gov.uk, is being collected, following reports that the portal is being used to target users in preparation for Brexit.

A memo obtained by media company BuzzFeed allegedly urges departments to share data collected from its gov.uk website and is marked as a “top priority” by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings.

The memo also claims Johnson has informed members of the Exit Operations Committee that the Government Digital Service should “allow targeted and personalised information to be gathered, analysed and fed back actively to support key decision-making”.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) said it has “contacted Government regarding the collection of personal data on gov.uk to fully understand its approach to compliance with data protection law and whether any further action is necessary”.

The gov.uk portal is the central hub for access to official information and services online, ranging from renewing passports, advice on childcare, benefits and obtaining driving licences. As the 31 October deadline looms ever closer, the Government is expecting an upturn in people visiting the site to seek details about Brexit.

The Government, however, has played down suggestions of wrongdoing, saying individual departments currently use cookies legally to measure website use. It also said it wants to bring this anonymised data together under one central roof to improve the service.

Damian Collins, chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said he will be asking culture secretary Nicky Morgan about how the Government uses data in communications when she appears in front of MPs on 16 October.

Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat MPs have written to the watchdog expressing concern about the report’s allegations, asking for clarity on what the data is used for.

In a statement, they said: “Will you be seeking to meet with No. 10 and the Cabinet Office to confirm any such data transfer or analysis is within the law and in particular that the data will not be used by Government to promote their political agenda or be exported to third-party organisations such as the Conservative Party?”

In response to the concerns, a Government spokesman said that all activity was fully compliant with legal obligations, with work on the website initiated at the beginning of the year.

“All data remains anonymised and no personal data is collected at any point during the process,” the spokesman said. “All activity is fully compliant with our legal and ethical obligations under the Government’s Data Ethics Framework.

“Ahead of the UK’s departure from the EU on 31 October the Government Digital Service is working to ensure people have the best possible experience when they access gov.uk services”.

With Brexit looming, not only are people throughout the UK seeking more details about how to prepare for the country leaving the European Union (EU), there are also widespread concerns about the potential of a no-deal Brexit and the impact it will have across many industries, particularly in the automotive sector.

Trade body the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) reported a 10.6 per cent decline in new UK car production recorded in July. This car demand has been hit by a number of factors in recent months including sustained uncertainty over a no-deal Brexit, with the decision to leave posing a “serious threat” to the UK car industry.

Back in May, British Steel fell into liquidation after failing to find a buyer, with the owner Greybull Capital blaming the collapse on Brexit.

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