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13 September 2019updated 01 Jul 2021 11:53am

What the GOV.UK data “plot” tells us about Boris Johnson’s digital strategy

Conspiracy theories have emerged around Dominic Cummings's request for data, but the truth is probably more prosaic.

By Oscar Williams

In October 2016, Dominic Cummings published a 3,000-word blog detailing how his team had defied pollsters’ predictions to clinch a narrow victory in the EU referendum. Underpinning the success of Vote Leave’s campaign, its director explained, was a field of study rarely associated with the political realm: physics.

“Physicists and mathematicians regularly invade other fields but other fields do not invade theirs so we can see which fields are hardest for very talented people,” wrote Cummings. “It is no surprise that they can successfully invade politics and devise things that rout those who wrongly think they know what they are doing.”

What they had devised, according to Cummings, was a sophisticated data-harvesting regime that provided the means for Vote Leave to target messages, through canvassing and social media, at members of the public considered most likely to be receptive to it.

Against this backdrop, a BuzzFeed News story published earlier this week, revealing a Downing Street plan to harvest data from the GOV.UK website, raised eyebrows in Westminster. With an autumn election widely expected, Labour warned that the Prime Minister and his most senior aide might be orchestrating a secretive plot to secure citizen data for “party political purposes”.

But it seems more likely that the request forms part of a wider strategy to overhaul the way Whitehall operates. Cummings has often expressed his contempt for government bureaucracy. And yet experts have warned that the secrecy surrounding the GOV.UK initiative may hinder his broader vision for a digital state.

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First, though, let’s consider those rumours of a politically motivated plot to harvest data. If Johnson were to hand over private information about citizens to Conservative campaigners, it wouldn’t just represent one of the most egregious abuses of the state’s technological apparatus in UK history; it would also be illegal. The European data protection regulations, which the government incorporated into British law last year, forbid data sharing for such purposes unless citizens have explicitly granted their consent.

The theory is also unproven. While data about the public’s interactions with government would doubtless be valuable for political campaigners, there is no evidence at this stage to suggest this is the objective of Johnson and Cummings’s request. Details, however, remain hard to come by and in our febrile political climate, it’s easy to see how conspiracy theories have spread.

What we do know is that Johnson wants to turn GOV.UK into a “platform to allow targeted and personalised information to be gathered, analysed and fed back actively to support key decision making” ahead of Brexit. Despite this, the government has insisted it is not collecting personal data.

“Across the industry, it is normal for organisations to look at how their websites are used to make sure they provide the best possible service,” a spokesperson said. “Individual government departments currently collect anonymised user data when people use GOV.UK. The Government Digital Service is working on a project to bring this anonymous data together to make sure people can access all the services they need as easily as possible.”

It’s not clear if the government is harvesting anonymised data detailing citizens’ interactions with government services, or just using cookies that tell it how users of GOV.UK travel across the site (as practically all websites do). However we also know, thanks to Johnson’s leaked minutes, that the Government Digital Service (GDS) has been tasked with developing “a digital identity accelerated implementation plan”.

This might sound ominous, but it is not a new scheme. The government has been attempting to roll out a central verification system for public services, called Verify, since 2013. The verification process is managed by private companies, but a number of providers have withdrawn from the scheme in recent weeks, raising questions about its future.

That Downing Street wants to reinvigorate Verify won’t surprise those who are familiar with Cummings’ thinking about the future of the state. The advisor has written about the need for government departments to emulate start-up culture and incorporate “physicist-dominated data science in decision making”.

Few people in Whitehall would deny that many aspects of government could benefit from modernisation. However, there are plenty of legitimate civil liberties concerns about transforming GOV.UK into a conventional tech platform, and it appears that this is exactly what Johnson and Cummings have set out to do. “The greater the volume of data structured through personalised ID, the more impact the outcome,” said Johnson in a leaked message that might have been written by a Facebook executive.

It also reveals an appetite for creative destruction. In 2016, Cummings wrote that “leaving the EU also requires the destruction of the normal Whitehall/Downing Street system and the development of new methods. A dysfunctional broken system is hardly likely to achieve the most complex UK government project since beating Nazi Germany, and this realisation is spreading.”

Most seriously for Johnson and Cummings, it may reveal a lack of new ideas. It was a blind belief in innovation over stability that gave rise to the Silicon Valley mantra of “move fast and break things”. Creative destruction has been a powerful force for the US tech giants, which profit from accelerating the demise of older businesses. But it has also led to widespread suspicion of those same companies – and in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, those who have used their tools for political ends. The modernisation depends on the trust of citizens and their willingness to hand over increasing volumes of sensitive data to the state; the idea of demanding or simply taking such resources already looks old-fashioned.

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