The real cost of tracking on gov.uk

For those trying to get their heads around the Cambridge Analytica revelations came another headache last month – news that Boris Johnson had privately ordered that the government’s key public internet service be used to gather “targeted and personalised information”.

The sprawling gov.uk domain covers everything from immigration advice to drivers’ licensing and, inevitably, Brexit advice. At the moment, each department gathers its own stash of data (so if you visit the DVLA section, for example, the Department for Transport gets information about which pages you visit, which search engine you used to find the gov.uk  site, etc.)

Johnson’s plan is to pool all the data together under the Cabinet Office. The fact that he reportedly sent a memo about that plan to members of the government’s Brexit committee has raised suspicions there’s a Brexit-related motive. What’s not clear from the reporting is how this data will be used. There are two potential answers: data mining and advertising.

On the former, here’s a hypothetical use case: if the government finds out that the majority of visitors to the gov.uk Brexit advice page immediately head over to the passport renewal pages, then that suggests passports are a concern for those worried about Brexit. So the government can target its messaging accordingly (you might hear ministers in the news saying “don’t worry – leaving the EU doesn’t mean you have to change your passport”, for example).

The potential for targeted advertising is more creepy. The gov.uk site uses cookies – a string of letters and numbers that uniquely identifies each visitor to the site. The cookie technology is provided by Google. The gov.uk site states: “We do not allow Google to use or share the data about how you use this site”. I’m confused by that, because when I logged into Google as a would-be advertiser and specified that I wanted to target my ads at a gov.uk audience, this is what Google said they were interested in:

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… which does look rather like Google is using insights gleaned from the gov.uk website to allow advertisers to target ads.

Whatever emerges from the mists, there is a bigger issue here: trust. The whole point of gov.uk is to have a single online point where citizens can interact with the many different branches of government, and avoid the problems that come from separate silos of data (eg. having to enter the same information over and over in several different places). The ultimate aim is to shift civic services online, and if successful it’s likely that offline options will be gradually closed off.

If people think the gov.uk site is being used for creepy tracking technology for murky purposes, they may think twice before using the service – if, indeed, they have a choice.

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