Matthew Rice: Devolved voice vital for data security

We should limit state access to personal data. Photograph: Getty
We should limit state access to personal data. Photograph: Getty
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The role of technology in Scotland is more important than ever. According to recent reports, the digital technology sector is Scotland’s fastest growing sector, providing opportunities for jobs and innovation. Technology is also driving solutions for delivery of public services and for communities. There are great opportunities for a positive, inclusive, digital society to be fostered in Scotland.

There are great risks emerging due to the use of technology, however. In the past, proposals for the centralisation of Scottish citizens’ personal data into one central database for more than 100 public bodies to access represents the truly ugly side of technological determinism that undermines the right to privacy and puts people at risk. Thankfully, those proposals for expanded access were dropped, but the database remains in place. The Scottish public deserve a much stronger voice in these debates, and Open Rights Group’s aim is to help develop that voice to influence debates that affect privacy and freedom of speech in Scotland.

Decisions taken in Scotland, either by the Scottish Government, through representatives in Westminster, or in Brussels via Scots MEPs are going to be of more significance than ever before. In a political landscape where the direction of travel for powers is towards more devolution it is vital that Scotland is recognised as a society with different considerations, a shared history but possibly a different future to other parts of the UK.

As a result, Open Rights Group is making a direct investment in Scotland, bringing a dedicated Scotland Director to work on issues affecting the country and influence debates in Scotland.

Open Rights Group is the UK’s only digital campaigning organisation working to protect the rights to privacy and free speech online. We believe in the importance of empowered people defending their human rights in the digital age. We are a grassroots campaigning organisation, with local groups in cities across the UK including Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow. These groups help develop and deliver public campaigns to better safeguard our human rights. For anyone interested in discussing issues from defamation reform to oversight of policing, we aim to provide those forums and platforms for your voice to be heard by your representatives.

We need to build institutions of trust and mechanisms for accountability to reach a society where we control the data our digital lives create, deciding who can use it and how. At the moment, Scotland is suffering from a deficit in both of these areas. The access to information regime across public services is woefully underperforming, and institutions of oversight such as the Scottish Police Authority are turning into nightmarish visions of Kafkaesque bureaucracy. It is welcome that these problems have been acknowledged by the Scottish Government. It is now time to set about solving them.

Alongside other parts of civil society already in Scotland, Open Rights Group is working to see a genuine commitment to reform systems that are currently not serving the public. Recent successes, such as the No 2 Named Person campaign, have provided proof that when action is taken, be it legal action or a campaign, there can be positive political responses.

Whether it is upcoming opportunities to add our voice to debates, such as the NHS Scotland eHealth digital strategy review, or increasing engagement with MSPs in developing their understanding of the problems solved and generated through the use of technology, our work will be accessible and based on evidence. These debates are often confusing, riddled with wonkish language from the worlds of policy and technology. Open Rights Group is here to help provide a forum for the wider public to define the role technology plays in their lives.

Scotland finds itself at a crossroads between two possible futures. One where people are in control of their technology and receive the amazing benefits from that, or another where technology controls people. Ultimately, the role of Open Rights Group in Scotland is to help Scotland towards the former, and warn when the latter starts to rear its head. There has been no better time to get involved and shape Scotland’s digital future.

Matthew Rice is Scotland Director of Open Rights Group