16 October 2019

Parliamentary Perspectives: Should Governments Systematically Collect Individuals’ Data to Advance the Public Good?

Members of parliament from across Europe share their perspectives on a question of European policy.

Modern information and communication technology (ICT) is able to collect, store, and process exponentially growing amounts of data. It has created an opportunity for the private as well as the public sector to incorporate and evaluate private citizen data, and to use this knowledge to adapt services accordingly. For the public sector, this can increase the efficiency and efficacy of policies and ultimately serve the public good. It can be used to supervise citizen behavior, detect irregularities, regulate social conduct through permissions or prohibitions, and provide targeted services.

ICTs and the knowledge they gather can be further used to implement adaptive policies that respond to complex developments based on real-time data in a way that traditional methods fail to do. One example of how ICTs are incorporated in the public sector is in the emergence of “smart cities”, with more and more cities seeking to address public issues via ICT-based solutions; for instance, by monitoring real-time traffic or offering customized citizen services.

While there are benefits for public administrations to use them to improve citizen welfare, ICTs should not be embraced without reservations. For example, even anonymously collected data can ultimately be traced back to individuals, which means that ICTs pose a threat to the right to privacy. Artificial intelligence (AI) and big data can be potentially abusive and discriminatory to minority groups, and misinterpretations or errors in the models and algorithms applied can have grave consequences for individuals. Even when applied “correctly”, the automated interpretation of big data by AI could lead to unforeseeable problems. What is more, the implementation of public policies that are based on ICTs is often performed by private companies under public-private partnership. Such outsourcing is controversial as private companies are usually less transparent as to how they collect and process data—and what other profits they draw from it.

Governments have always used data to shape policy, but the precision and volume of information offered by ICTs poses a new question on how much private citizen data governments should have access to. As these technologies offer a seemingly endless range of possibilities, policymakers do not only need to critically reflect on the outcomes they want to achieve, such as greater efficiency of public services, but also on whether the use of ICTs complies with their understanding of what is “right” for governments to do. So far, the discussion of how ICTs impacts public-sector values has been limited. The debate has focused on how government surveillance programs in the interest of security violate the right to privacy and freedom of expression. However, similar concerns emerge when it comes to the growing use of data by governments in other fields, such as in “smart cities.”

Members of parliaments in Europe are increasingly faced with the challenge of finding a regulation for the collection and use of data by governments. We asked members of the Mercator European Dialogue parliamentary network: Should governments systematically collect data of individuals to advance the public good?


Joško Klisović | Member of Parliament, Croatia

I think they should, under the condition that they enjoy enough trust of the citizens and are able to secure the data from unauthorized access and use. Too often the state data is misused for personal or party purposes, and therefore the rights of citizens are violated. Citizens will not provide the governments with their consent unless they sufficiently trust in state institutions.

Sébastien Nadot | Member of the National Assembly, France

No! What is the public good? Why systematically? First, individuals have, at a moment, to accept this with mindfulness of the possible consequences. Second, we need an independent process of control. Government can’t be part of this control (no judge and party). We need a group composed by parliamentarians, experts (here, data scientists), and citizens. In France we don’t have this sort of group. So, we have to build it. Otherwise, the answer to the question will continue to be no!

Gabriela Crețu | Member of the Senate, Romania

I think the issue of systematic collection of data by governments comes down to consent and control of the citizens over how personal data is collected. There are clear benefits of collecting big data in order to advance the public good, such as having a clearer perspective on the needs of citizens and allowing those needs to help shape public policy.

However, there are a couple of issues that should be cleared before we support this idea. First, do citizens have control over when, how, and which kind of personal data is collected by the government? Is there enough transparency from the government when it comes to the specific way in which that data is collected and used?

Only if we are able give a positive answer to both questions will we be able to say whether or not governments should collect data for the public good. Otherwise, we are only repeating the same controversies that are already hotly debated when it comes to the use of big data by private actors. The real danger is that, if big data ends up in the wrong hands, society could turn into a real-life social engineering experiment!

Ágnes Vadai | Member of Parliament, Hungary

There is nothing new in governmental data collection. Governments as representatives of states do not only have the right to do so, they do have the obligation to collect data for the public good. Why is there still a concern about data collection of governments? I see three aspects which should be examined: reason, scope and control.

As for the reason, the recently applied data-collection methods motivated by security concerns seem to worry our societies. This is the point where democratic politicians should understand that security or the threat to our security is an important factor, but this can undermine citizen trust if it turns out to be based on misperceptions or on a populist approach. This is especially true if the gathered data is used for “personal bad” instead of “public good”.

As for scope, responsible politicians should understand that there is a limit. Data collection should always be pinpointed and tightly focused. Too little data doesn’t give an overall picture. Too much data lacks priorities.

As for control, democratic politicians are not afraid of civil control. Instead of opposing this, politicians should ask for the help of citizens and civil society to be the generator of control of data collection.

Sven Clement | Member of Parliament, Luxembourg

Governments need some data about their citizens to function and support their citizens in their daily lives. Yet we need to make sure that data, once collected, has narrowly defined uses and is protected by state-of-the-art methods. The best data protection is still not to gather data, but if the collection is necessary for the public good, then the elected representatives of the data subjects should rule on which data to collect for exactly what usage.

We see in Luxembourg how the government over a period of 30 years created over 1,400 distinct databases of individuals, based on the argument of public good. It is now up to the legislators to rein in that extensive and sometimes abusive behavior of collecting data and asking questions later.

So, yes, governments could systematically collect data to advance the public good, but that data needs to be strictly limited in scope, time, and use, and under permanent supervision of watchdogs. The General Data Protection Regulation is a chance for ethical data use and we should welcome its principles in every new data project.

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