Dowden: Data an Opportunity, Not a Risk

Mar 16, 2021

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Dowden: Data an Opportunity, Not a Risk

We have long viewed data through the lens of risk, at least according to UK Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden. He hopes to change that with the hiring of a new Information Commissioner whose job will be to find new ways to innovate and regulate data to achieve the UK's post-Brexit economic and social goals.

Dowden recently explained his plans for the new Information Commissioner in a piece published by the Financial Times. He also explained his view that UK organisations have been hampered by their inability to see the potential that data has to offer. He believes that far too many have been reluctant to dive into the deep end of the data pool because they are afraid of breaking the law.

Data Protection Outside the EU

Assuming Dowden is correct about UK organisations being hampered thus far, part of the blame rests squarely with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) implemented by the EU some years ago. It is a complicated piece of legislation that affects businesses and organisations of all sizes; however it is not so easy to understand and comply with.

We now have the opportunity to rethink data protection and transfer outside of the EU. The UK has a unique opportunity to fashion its own regulations that simultaneously protect consumer privacy and encourage innovation in how data is collected and used.

Being out of the EU also affords us the opportunity to broker new deals with other global partners. This is perhaps the biggest opportunity of all for the new Information Commissioner. Dowden thinks the new Commissioner has a golden opportunity to put the UK in a position of being the world's leader in data innovation.

Data Innovations in the Pandemic

In his piece, Dowden pointed to data innovations implemented as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. For example, hospital trusts were able to share lung scan data for the purposes of improving treatment. In Dowden's mind, such examples prove that there is plenty more we can do.

Chalk up another victory for coronavirus. In addition to all of the other changes it has wrought on culture and society, it is now helping to redefine the role of the Information Commissioner. Indeed, the Cabinet Office now considers the Information Commissioner's Office one of the most important in the UK.

What It Means Practically

An op-ed written by the Digital Secretary doesn't necessarily mean much by itself. Politicians and bureaucrats say a lot of things that never get beyond the media. So, do Dowden's thoughts have practical application? Yes. For starters, they suggest a much broader role for whoever takes the Commissioners job.

That broader role is likely to lead to new regulation. Undoubtedly, some of that regulation will replace aspects of the GDPR that do not sit well with the UK. Other regulations will be implemented to change how data is collected, used and shared.

What remains to be seen is whether or not our new Information Commissioner wants to continue the highly restrictive ways of the EU or move toward the more relaxed position of the US. In either case, Dowden is correct in his assertion that data offers a plethora of opportunities we haven't even begun to explore.

There are always risks when dealing with data. This is nothing new. What is relatively new is our obsession with mitigating risk at all costs. As with any other aspect of life, it's impossible to remove all the risk from generating and sharing data. Any attempt to do so stifles innovation, slows progress and ultimately puts too much power in the hands of regulators.