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UK minister praises mass personal data use during pandemic, calls for more of it in the future

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According to the UK’s Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden, one of the lessons learned from the pandemic is to make more use of data, to improve Britain’s post-Brexit position in the world.

And Dowden’s not talking about just any data: in an op-ed published by the Financial Times, he singles out the genetic and personal health data, that he says not only helped develop one of the Covid vaccines, but also made the experience of those getting inoculated with it convenient, since a system has been put in place alerting them via text or email.

This government official is clearly happy with the way data has been used during the pandemic, and with that in mind, wants to change the perspective and the negative connotations around harvested data as a risk factor when it comes to people’s privacy – and “rebrand” widespread and rapid data collection and sharing as an opportunity.

To this end, Dowden is announcing that the new head of UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) – who upholds information rights in the public interest and is sponsored by his department – will be tasked with achieving the goals of this apparent shift in policy, that is explained as having the aim of ensuring “people can use data to achieve economic and social goals.”

Dowden, naturally, can’t publicly dismiss data privacy as a priority, but he makes it clear that the government he belongs to does not intend to “copy and paste” EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and cites other countries around the world that have come up with their own rules on how to best protect data.

But according to him, UK’s data protection standards are already “world-class” – so it would seem that priorities now might be after all shifting from privacy towards “opportunities,” as the next ICO commissioner finds ways for data use for “economic and social goals.”

Dowden says that liberated from the EU, his country can seek out new partners among “some of the world’s fastest growing economies,” without naming them; but he has a precise figure on how much is lost in service exports because of international “data transfer barriers” – £11bn ($15.3bn).

The new commissioner will mark a new era, he writes, where “we start asking ourselves not just whether we have the right to use data, but whether, given its potential for good, we have the right not to.”

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