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Lords Set To Strengthen UK's "Not Fit For Purpose" International Data Protections

Many apps used in the UK are owned by international companies (Alamy)

4 min read

Peers have warned that it would be a “mistake” for the government not to put stronger protections in place on the international transfer of data, with one former minister claiming current regulations are "not fit for purpose".

The Data Protection and Digital Information Bill will be debated in the House of Lords on Monday afternoon, with a group of peers putting forward a number of amendments in an attempt to implement further protections for the transfer of data from the UK. 

With the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary both warning that the world is becoming a more dangerous place, parliamentarians are looking for ways to push the government to prioritise protecting digital rights internationally.

One amendment to the bill, laid by Lord James Bethell, Lord Timothy Kirkhope, and Lord Tim Clement-Jones, seeks to prevent the UK from transferring data to countries which have “no credible means to enforce data subject rights or obtain legal remedies”.

Bethell, a former innovation minister between 2020 and 2021, told PoliticsHome he was worried that the UK Government did not want to tackle such a “fiendishly complicated subject”, but that it would be a “mistake” not to do so.

“[The bill] has this massive gap, not including international transfer of data in that Data Protection Bill is a huge lacuna, a mistake,” he said.

“What the hell are we doing, sending every day gigabytes and gigabytes of very sensitive population data to countries who have an explicit strategy to try to cream off and farm data for national security and trade reasons?”

Citing “countries of concern” identified by the USA as North Korea, Iran, Russia, and China that are likely using data from the UK to promote their interests, Bethell said he and other peers were seriously concerned that the UK’s international arrangements on data sharing were “very weak” and “not fit for purpose”.

“It's staggering how much social media companies have already figured out how to hack our psychology and make the algorithm addictive and to get people to drive the attention economy,” he continued, explaining that these countries could use data for the surveillance of prominent individuals but also to monitor populations at large and interfere in the UK’s democratic processes.

“I don't think we're far off potentially being able to make strides in changing people's attitudes to politics,” he added. 

In a letter to AI Minister Viscount Camrose in January, Bethell wrote that the vulnerability in the UK’s data protection “may worsen under the draft Bill” while data continues to be transferred to countries which cannot guarantee minimum data protection standards. 

“This Bill is an opportunity for the UK to lead the world in establishing new standards for cross-border data transfer,” he wrote. 

“I hope you will consider my amendment, which seeks to precisely achieve that, anticipating the next 50 years of policymaking, where digital rights are set to become more and more central and less loose.”

Lord Kirkhope was a former Member of European Parliament who was involved in drafting the general data protection regulation (GDPR), which included defining what adequate data protections should look like across the world.

“Importantly there has to be a clear understanding regarding things like redress,” he said.

“For those where data is abused, there has to be a quite clear understanding that there is a legal process in place that is understandable and also acceptable not only internally in those jurisdictions, but also widely internationally as well. 

“Now, the problem is the government is not actually in this bill, providing adequate safeguards from our point of view. They are saying all kinds of things, ‘we will make sure that we check this out, blah, blah, blah’... It's all rather nebulous and rather vague. 

“And I'm going to press the minister hard today, to be very, very specific about it. I think it's going to be extremely difficult for him to be able to deal with that.”

Kirkhope said that the UK Government’s claim that this country will lead the world in technology regulations is “absolute rubbish”.

“The world is already moving on, the Chinese are moving into their own systems, the United States are working actually quite closely with the EU now and we seem to be sitting as sort of piggies in the middle,” he said.

“We seem to think that we will do our own thing, and everybody else in the entire world is going to follow us, and that's not going to happen. The government seems to me that it's almost trying to invent the wheel again… we don't need to do that, but it seems almost intent on not being prepared to follow what is already in place and what is already internationally acceptable, and that is a big mistake. 

“And I'm going to point that out to the minister today as well in what I say.”

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