‘Digital First’ Census raises concerns around storage of personal data & cyber attacks

Research commissioned by Exabeam has revealed that a significant proportion of people in the UK are concerned about how the Government will use and store the data it collects from the 2021 Census. The new study, conducted by YouGov among 1,766 adults in the UK, shows that 48% feel they are not well informed about how the Government will use their personal information; this rises to 61% when asked how informed they feel about storage of that data.

As a ‘Digital First’ Census aiming for an online response rate of 75%, Census 2021 is taking place at a time where data security and issues surrounding personal data are increasingly in news headlines. This concern stems both from high profile incidents, such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, as well as the significant uptick in online scams targeted at members of the public. According to Action Fraud, incidences of government impersonation scams increased dramatically over the last year, including those around national insurance and the COVID-19 vaccine roll out.

The findings of this survey suggest that that not only should the Government continue to communicate with the public regarding the safe storage and use of their personal data even after they have submitted their Census responses, but that communications need to be far more accessible and digestible for the general public.

For example, the ONS Census 2021 Independent Information Assurance Public Report, which is available on request from the ONS Chief Security Office, provides a detailed overview of the comprehensive governance and assessments carried out ahead of Census 2021, but fails to communicate the findings in a manner most non-security practitioners would find easy to understand. As such, any subsequent data breaches relating to the Census may negatively impact the willingness of people in the UK to participate in online data gathering processes in the future.

While the external threat to data is of critical importance, Exabeam argues that the Government must also continue to invest in solutions which minimise the risk of security breaches that originate inside public sector organisations. Access control will be crucial, not only to prevent data breaches from malicious insiders with criminal intent, but also to prevent anyone being given unintentional access due to software or permission errors.

“The Census represents a huge effort to compile and store personal data, including sensitive issues such as gender, sexual orientation and some health data. As such, it is a vital tool for future national government strategy planning, but also a potential gold mine for would-be attackers and therefore a major security and privacy risk,” commented Samantha Humphries, Head of Security Strategy EMEA at Exabeam.

“While in many cases, respondents expressed confidence and a lack of concern, this survey highlights a real problem of awareness in how the Government stores and uses census data, as well as concerns from a significant proportion of the public around their ability to protect it. People need to have full confidence in the process and that work doesn’t stop when people have clicked ‘submit’ on their Census response,” concluded Humphries.

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