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Data Ethics Commission

Volume 783: debated on Monday 10 July 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to set up a Data Ethics Commission, as set out in their 2017 manifesto.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and draw attention to my digital interests as set out in the register.

My Lords, data governance and the effective and ethical use of data are vital for the future of our economy and our society. The Government are committed to creating a sound ethical framework in the UK that will give people confidence in how their data are being handled and used. We are working closely with industry, civil society groups and academia to examine how we can best achieve this.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for his Answer. It is encouraging to hear his enthusiasm, but the scale and scope of data usage is growing fast. Just in the past couple of weeks, parents have been scrambling to work out how to protect their children’s location from Snap Map, and we have heard that Vodafone has been using robots to screen candidates in advance of interviews. Just because you can does not mean that you automatically should. The technology world will not wait for us. Will my noble friend say when a commission will be set up?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for raising this because we agree that these issues are vital. It is critical that we get the rules right so that we can give the public confidence in how their data are being used. I completely agree with her that things are moving very fast. I can be more specific about the timing when we have consulted various groups that will be set up or have been set up, and when we have looked at the reports, particularly the Royal Society and British Academy report. When we have considered those reports we can be more specific, but we aim to update our thinking later in the year.

My Lords, the necessity of an ethics component in a structural engineering degree is well known: you cannot become one unless you have completed an ethnical component to the course. Would the Minister consider the other points at which we could insert an ethics course in our computer science degrees or other points of learning?

That is a very good idea. This affects many areas of work and our society: data are part of everything. Many degrees, not just the ones the noble Baroness mentioned, should consider the ethical issues surrounding this. A careful consideration of ethics is part of any good education.

My Lords, Matt Hancock from the other place said that, fundamentally, intelligent systems will take off only if people trust them and how they are regulated. I understand and totally agree with the noble Baroness’s suggestion that we must have a clear timetable for this commission, but what steps are the Government going to take to properly engage with the public to ensure that we gain their trust?

We are going to liaise with civil society groups, as I have said, and academia. The Nuffield Foundation, for example, is going to develop plans in partnership with the Royal Society, the British Academy, the Royal Statistical Society and the Alan Turing Institute to establish an independent convention on data ethics. This is something we support and will contribute to, and I think the public will be able to learn from such conventions. As I say, we will update our thinking later in the year.

My Lords, will this commission cover not only ethics but the use and application of data, for example through machine learning and development of algorithms? Can the Minister also explain how this commission will interrelate with the new data protection regulations starting in 2018 and the digital charter announced in the Queen’s Speech?

The data protection Bill, which will come before Parliament in the autumn, is to give effect to the general data protection regulations and the law enforcement directive. It will obviously include things to do with privacy, but data ethics covers many other things, such as artificial intelligence, which the noble Baroness mentioned. So it is not specifically a regulatory thing, although regulation may come out of it. It is to consider the new issues that come with this new technology.

My Lords, artificial intelligence has the potential to significantly empower us as humans, but comes with the worries that have been expressed. The noble Baroness, Lady Harding, mentioned parents. What plans do the Government have to engage children in this discussion about their data and their rights to the privacy of that data?

That is of course important, and the data protection Bill will include measures to protect children and to allow data which is held by social media companies, for example, to be deleted. As for engaging children in considering these ethical issues, that is something that the data commission can consider but, as I said, we have not yet been specific about the structure, function and remit of the commission.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the ethics and governance council for UK Biobank. Does the Minister agree that the potential value in health of the use of big data—in the development of new medicines and other fields—is enormous? In view of that, will he ensure that the interests of medical research are included in the commission’s terms of reference, given that it is essential that the public have trust in the systems governing the use of their information?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right. One issue that the commission can consider is whether, as data increases exponentially and individuals give data which can be used by data-mining companies and others, what is considered private data, even if it is anonymised, can be used for the greater good. We have to consider exactly such things. The Royal Free Hospital, for example, was in trouble under the Data Protection Act for allowing data, although anonymised, to be used by another company. We have to consider such things because a tremendous amount of benefit can be obtained for the general public from that data.

My Lords, much of this data is held outside the UK. In fact, we are not sure where quite a lot of it is held. How will we be able to regulate people when we do not know where they are?

I think it has been discussed in many multinational organisations—including the EU, I completely agree. One point of the data protection Bill is to try to get equivalence in data flow across borders after Brexit, but the point that the noble Lord makes is right: it is not always easy but we have to lead the way to show that an ethical regime is the way forward.

My Lords, are all non-classified reports or reports back compiled by officials—for example, reports back on trade missions around the world—in the public domain?