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Privacy and Open Government: We need your feedback!

“Open government” – the push for greater transparency, accountability and innovation from governments – is an idea that has gained increasing traction in recent years, as the potential for new technologies to enhance democracy is being realised.

But making government more open and responsive should not mean compromising on privacy and data protection. The Open Government Guide outlines steps governments can take towards more open government and Privacy International has written a draft chapter on privacy for the Guide, which is now open for comment.

More than 50 governments across the world are part of the Open Government Partnership, “a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance”. Governments who are part of the partnership commit to producing national action plans towards the goals of open government.

At the Open Government Partnership Summit last year, privacy was identified as a “thorny issue”. Taking up the challenge, the authors of the Open Government Guide recognised the primacy of privacy to good governance and asked Privacy International to contribute a chapter on this topic.

Our draft chapter identifies that privacy and data protection are implicated in the work of many government institutions, but particularly the police and public security services, whose work necessarily involves intrusion into the private sphere. Areas of concern include powers in relation to search and seizure, communications surveillance, and the creation of DNA databases. Identification and registration databases (such as in healthcare or for elections) also raise significant privacy issues. More generally:

Because technologies are so rapidly changing the nature and value of information, and because huge volumes of personal data are being rapidly generated, transmitted, shared and collated, it is essential that governments are transparent about the types and amount of data they collect and the means and modes of surveillance they conduct. There must be strong oversight and accountability mechanisms in place and clear, explicit laws must govern State use of surveillance powers and access to communications data.

Another significant issue is ensuring that when officials make existing government datasets public in digital form (“open data”), the rights to privacy and data protection are at the forefront of their minds. This means thinking about, for example, whether an anonymised dataset, when matched with other datasets, could reveal personal information about individuals.

In the draft, we have proposed as series of ‘initial’, ‘intermediate’, ‘advanced’ and ‘innovative’ commitments that governments can take:

Initial steps

  • Publish educational material about the importance of protecting personal information
  • Publish all laws setting out the surveillance powers of law enforcement and intelligence agencies

Intermediate steps

  • Enact data protection legislation
  • Repeal any requirements compelling the identification of phone or internet users

Advanced steps

  • Publish transparency reports about access to communications data and surveillance activities
  • Reform legislation relating to surveillance by state agencies to ensure it complies with the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance

Innovative steps

  • Establish a public oversight body responsible for ensuring that all new technologies and techniques adopted by police and public security agencies comport with the right to privacy

We are asking for feedback on the chapter and would encourage anyone with an interest in the issues raised here to contribute their thoughts.

Some useful questions to consider include:

  • Are the headline illustrative commitments realistic and stretching at each of the levels? If not, please suggest how they should be changed.
  • Are there any significant gaps in the illustrative commitments? Please suggest any additional commitments you feel should be included.
  • Are the recommendations clear and useful? Please suggest any alterations you feel should be made.
  • Are there particular country experiences that could be added? (these do not have to imply best practice or endorsement, but examples in practice) Please suggest any good examples you are aware of (with links to any resources).Are there any particularly useful resources missing? If so, please point us towards them.

You can comment on the document itself, make a comment here, or send any thoughts to info@opengovguide.com.