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Proposed UK data protection law hit by criticism

Weakened biometrics protections, welfare tracking risk claimed
Proposed UK data protection law hit by criticism

The UK’s prospective data protection law is facing criticism from lawmakers and rights groups over plans to introduce bank account monitoring of benefit recipients and changes to biometric data oversight.

A cross-party group of parliamentarians has called for the government to reject an addition to the  Data Protection and Digital Information Bill (DPDI) that would give powers to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) access to the bank accounts of individuals receiving state benefits. The proposal was introduced in the Bill in December to combat welfare fraud.

The letter signed last week by 20 Members of Parliament, noted that the power to scrutinize people’s accounts with automated systems could have “disastrous consequences,” including wrongful suspension of benefits. The group highlighted the example of the Horizon scandal, in which an automated software program used by the UK Post Office flagged false shortfalls.

“Issuing an account information notice would require banks to sift through tens of millions of bank accounts in order to identify people in the welfare system, around 40 percent of the population, in pursuit of indicators of fraud or error,” the letter notes.

The DPDI is currently being scrutinized by the House of Lords at the Committee stage with the final meeting scheduled for May 1st. The bill will then go through further debates at the House of Commons.

Last month, the UK’s Information Commissioner criticized the bill, noting that the draft currently doesn’t specify how the government plans to minimize data collection or explain how it’s processed. A total of 42 charities and campaign organizations also wrote to the government to rail against the proposal to monitor benefit seekers’ bank accounts.

The new data protection legislation is also set to change the oversight of biometric identification and surveillance technologies by absorbing the roles of the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner. The move was lambasted by former biometrics commissioner Fraser Sampson and his predecessors and by civil society organizations.

“It is our view that this will create significant gaps in the oversight of existing uses of surveillance cameras and biometrics.” the Equality and Human Rights Commission, a non-departmental public body, wrote last week.

The DPDI is facing other challenges. In March, the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee warned that the law could put the adequacy agreement that allows the sharing of data between the bloc and the UK at risk.

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