Access to Sensitive Data: Satisfying Objectives Rather than Constraints

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The argument for access to sensitive unit-level data produced within government is usually framed in terms of risk and the legal responsibility to maintain confidentiality. This article argues that the framing of the question may restrict the set of possibilities; a more effective perspective starts from the data owner’s principles and user needs. Within this principlesbased framework, the role of law changes: It becomes an ‘enabling technology’, helping to define the solution but playing no role in setting the objectives.

This shift in perspective has a number of consequences. The perception of ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’ is reversed. Law and established practice are distinguished and appropriately placed within a cost-benefit framework. The subjectivity and uncertainty in risk assessments is made explicit. Overall, all other things being equal, the expectation is that a move towards objective-based planning increases data access and improves risk assessment.

This alternative perspective also addresses the problem of the public-good nature of research outputs. It encourages the data owner to engage with users and build a case for data access taking account of the wider needs of society.

The UK data access regime is used as the primary example of the arguments in this article

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