The UK government is planning to collect “targeted and personalized information,” on anyone who visits the government’s various websites, according to a new report from BuzzFeed News. Politicians in the UK are being told that it’s a “top priority” and that the information is needed to prepare for Brexit, the UK’s departure from the European Union, which is still scheduled for October 31.
BuzzFeed obtained two top secret government directives from August directed at members of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s cabinet about an “accelerated implementation plan” for tracking “digital identity.” A UK government spokesperson in contact with Buzzfeed denied that it was collecting personal data and insisted that “all activity is fully compliant with our legal and ethical obligations.”
The government’s main web portal, Gov.UK, is used for a wide range of online services from health care to passports to taxes, and also includes services that would typically be handled by individual states in the U.S., including renewing your driver’s license. Thus, any attempt to politicize the kind of information collected is highly controversial in the UK.
At present, usage of GOV.UK is tracked by individual departments, not collected centrally. According to the documents seen by BuzzFeed News, the Cabinet Office’s digital unit, the government digital service (GDS), will add an additional layer of tracking that “will enable GDS to have data for the entire journey of a user as they land on GOV.UK from a Google advert or an email link, read content on GOV.UK, click on a link taking them from GOV.UK to a service and then onwards through the service journey to completion”.
One of the memos was from Prime Minister Johnson himself telling staff that the information would “support key decision making” for Brexit, though it’s not clear what that means in practice.
British citizens are rightly skeptical of any massive digital data collection programs, especially as we learn more about how Big Data was used to manipulate the British people before the public referendum in 2016 on whether or not to leave the EU. The campaigners who wanted people to vote “Leave” used the disgraced political data firm Cambridge Analytica, best known in the U.S. for misusing Facebook data in an effort to get Donald Trump elected.
The UK is currently in the middle of a self-imposed crisis as the deadline for Brexit is less than two months away. And while no one knows for sure what Boris Johnson and his government will do with a new centralized data collection plan, you can see why people would think that’s a bad idea.
But much like President Trump’s attitude in the U.S., it may not matter what the people think—Johnson suspended parliament last night, sending politicians home until October 14, and he’s going to do whatever he feels he needs to do to make Brexit happen.