Data in the rest of Government: When is personal data not personal data?

This forms a background note for our Investigatory Powers Bill Briefing.

We asked a selection of Government departments what “Bulk Personal Datasets” they hold. These are collections of personal data on a lot of people, which inadvertently answer the question, what data does Government use to make decisions?

So here are the lists, by Department and how many datasets:

Apparently, the Cabinet Office doesn’t use data on people for anything other than “National Security” or the “prevention and detection of crime”.

If you look at the Education and Transport lists, they include the things you would expect – databases on car registrations, and drivers, or of pupils, schools and teachers. This is the sort of data that Government should be using, transparently and accountably, to make decisions. 

But just as Justice is blind, Health, DWP, apparently make decisions without recourse to data on the population of the country. Do DH really not use any data on doctors, or on patients? Do MoJ not use data on prisoners?  According to both of them, no they don’t.

Of course, they actually do. When DWP counted, they had 15,000+ copies of their Customer Information System lying around their analysts computers, which each had data on up to 120 million citizens (there aren’t that many people in the country, but they had a lot of duplicates; it’s now down to about 80 million records for 65 million people). Just lying around – the loss of any one of those copies (for which there are no records) would have dwarfed the HMRC child benefit data loss of 2007.

None of those copies are accounted for, or considered personal data. Your pension contribution history may be personal data to you, but not according to DWP.

Why is that?

From the work of Privacy International, we see:

“…agreed with Cabinet Office in 2010, as part of the Review of Agency Handling of Bulk Personal Data, that, to be considered personal data, a dataset has to contain at least the actual names of individuals.

On that basis, all of the answers we’ve received may be “accurate” if you use unstated definitions: DWP’s analysts don’t get names (just addresses, dates of birth, and detailed employment/NI history, etc).

The Cabinet Office’s working definition of bulk data on page 2 says simply “personal data”, and gives no indication that the second clause of the definition in the Data Protection Act has been dropped as it was inconvenient:

“personal data” means data which relate to a living individual who can be identified—
(a) from those data, or
(b) from those data and other information which is in the possession of, or is likely to come into the possession of, the data controller,

Perhaps the current Digital Economy Bill should sneak  “unless it’s inconvenient” onto the end…