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What the manifestos envision for government, technology and digital rights

SWEE LENG HARRIS: With digital government increasingly replacing analogue administration in the UK and the rule of law implications that follow, what are the parties saying about data and digital rights in their manifestos?

digital government

The Policy Institute is producing a series of comment pieces analysing election manifesto pledges from the different parties across a range of policy areas. Read the full series here.  

Digital government is increasingly replacing analogue administration in the UK. This shift has rule of law implications in terms of the transparency and accountability of the government’s exercise of public power. So given this context, what do the main UK political parties say about data and digital rights in their manifestos?

Labour’s manifesto reaffirms their commitment to the Human Rights Act and European Convention on Human Rights, and promises a new Charter of Digital Rights. Labour describes this Charter as “the strongest protection of data and online rights ever enacted”, and anticipates that it could include rights for individuals to challenge algorithmic injustice, to prevent use of digital infrastructure for surveillance, and over access and ownership of their data. Although not expressly stated, the description of the Charter implies that it would apply to private and public sector data processing. 

Labour notes that government is “ever more dependent on digital technology” and as such cybersecurity is of key importance, they therefore propose a co-ordinating minister for cybersecurity and regular reviews of cyber-readiness. Noting the digital exclusion resulting from universal credit as a digital-by-default system, Labour promises additional support services via telephone and face-to-face advice.

The Conservative manifesto promises increased use of technology and data in law enforcement, and increased use of data in government processes. As part of their law and order agenda, the Conservatives propose to “empower the police to safely use new technologies like biometrics and artificial intelligence, along with the use of DNA, within a strict legal framework”. There have been concerns among legal and human rights organisations over the use of new technology in criminal law enforcement such as the use of live facial recognition technology and data harvesting of the phones of victims of crimes.

The broader context of the Conservative position is that they plan to look at “the relationship between the government, parliament and the courts” in the UK’s constitution. They plan to “update the Human Rights Act and administrative law to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government” — a proposal that has prompted some criticism.

A focus on civil liberties characterises the vision set out by the Liberal Democrats on digital rights in their manifesto, which shares Labour’s commitment to the Human Rights Act and European Convention on Human Rights. The Liberal Democrats make a number of specific promises on government use of technology to: end bulk collection of communications data and halt use of facial recognition technology by policy. The manifesto also proposes the establishment of firewalls to “prevent public agencies from sharing personal information with the Home office for the purposes of immigration enforcement” — which would prevent the kind of automated hostile environment I have previously described — and “repeal the immigration exemption in the Data Protection Act”. On the broader question of government use of algorithms in decision-making, the manifesto proposes a citizens’ assembly.

Whereas Labour’s ideas for the Charter of Digital Rights focus on legally enforceable accountability mechanisms, the Liberal Democrats frame their ideas on new technologies in terms of ethics. They propose a new “Lovelace Code of Ethics” (named presumably after Ada Lovelace who worked on computing in the 19th century), saying that use of personal data and artificial intelligence should be “unbiased, transparent and accurate” and respect privacy. The UK’s Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation would have “the power to ‘call in’ products that appear to breach this Code”. There is a significant distinction between Labour’s proposals to give rights to individuals to challenge certain actions and to hold use of technology to account under law, and the Liberal Democrats’ vision of a regulator empowered to decide to review products.

Moving from ideas on rights to look at how these manifestos think about protections, they all make promises to address cybercrime and protect children online. Labour pledges an enforceable legal duty of care for children online, fines for companies with regard to online abuse, and a new national strategy on cybercrime and fraud, in response to economic crime that includes cybercrime and fraud. The Conservatives propose legislation to make the UK “the safest place in the world to be online”, including protecting children from online harms, the vulnerable from accessing harmful contact, and against terrorists online — in essence continuing the current government’s project on online harms. They also plan to establish a new national cyber crime force, although it is not clear how this new institution would differ from the existing National Cyber Crime Unit. Finally, the Liberal Democrats would establish a new Online Crime Agency to address illegal content and activity online, while also promoting education and support for parents on helping children “protect themselves online”.

Digital rights and government use of data processing are not the headline issues in this election, but for those interested in the rule of law and how government exercises public power and implements the law, they are nevertheless important. The Conservatives would continue much of the approach of the current government, with increased legislative authority for police use of technology. Labour has a vision (subject to consultation) for new digital rights focused on empowering individuals and addressing risks associated with government reliance on technology and digital services, although without the kind of detail of Liberal Democrats’ proposals. The latter would unpick government uses of data processing that have been criticised for encroaching on civil liberties, while having a relatively techno-utopian belief in responsible technology.

Swee Leng Harris is Head of Policy and Public Affairs at the Legal Education Foundation and a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Policy Institute, King's College London.