Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Data Ventures: StatsNZ plays startup

Back in June, StatsNZ went public about a project to track population data on an hourly level by using people's cellphones. It wasn't as bad as it initially looked - they were receiving no individual data, only counts by suburb - but there was still a huge consent problem, so I sent off an OIA to try and find out more. Thanks to commercial sensitivity redactions, the OIA wasn't very informative about that (it basicly boils down to StatsNZ is trusting cellphone providers' clickwrap licences, which does not meet the ethical standard I expect from a government agency). But it was quite informative about Data Ventures, the StatsNZ subsidiary responsible. And what it shows is unsettling.

Here's StatsNZ's initial pitch to the Minister of Statistics about Data Ventures, and here's their "strategy session" to define what they want to do:

Revenue is top of the list, but it won't come from selling Stats' (or rather, our) data. Instead, they'll be providing commercial data analysis services. But they tell the Minister they'll be using this revenue to fund social good ventures, so its a bit confused there. More confusing is their talk of "providing [a] new reputation for stats" as "disruptive" - they use this word a lot. Basicly, it sounds like a bunch of public servants playing at startups with government money - and its an impression confirmed by their monthly reports, which are all about sales pitches and innovation shows and grovelling for grants (frequently from other government agencies) to get a "longer runway". This is not the culture of the public service, and it makes me wonder what the hell is going on over there. And when they talk about wanting to "infect the organisation" with their values, well, that's a worry. And maybe the sort of thing the State Services Commission needs to be looking at.

But most worrying is this bit, from their pitch to the Minister:

All data acquired and created by Data Ventures is fed to Stats NZ for noncommercial benefits, such as improving existing data and statistical outputs.

In other words, they're going to use these contracts to hoover up private data for government use. There's no evidence they've done this yet - Data Ventures is still in its early days, and has only just delivered its first product - but that's one of the goals. And its a concern, because inevitably that data is going to end up in the Integrated Data Infrastructure, Stats' big brother pile of everything government has ever learned about you, where it will be mined for future "insights" (meaning: ways to cut funds somewhere or interfere in your life).

StatsNZ has a huge social licence problem at the moment, with using data collected for one purpose for something completely different without any sort of consent. Feeding private data into the IDI on the basis of commercial clickwrap licences is just going to add to that. And this is dangerous, because it undermines trust, and StatsNZ is an organisation we need to be able to trust. Maybe they should focus a bit more on that, rather than all the cool things they can do with Really Big Databases full of stolen data.