Confidentiality and data management

Keeping personal and financial data confidential is one of today's most pressing issues in an age where we rely on digital communications more than ever. However, research carried out by the Centre has helped promote a positive approach to studying data confidentiality that’s having a global impact.

Government agencies traditionally adopt a 'police' model: researchers wanting access to sensitive data for legitimate academic reasons are assumed to be untrustworthy and treated as such, with dire warnings of the penalties of misbehaviour. The problem is that this can provoke the very behaviour it is meant to avoid, creating a vicious circle. Society spends excessive amounts on protecting data as a result.

The work of BCEF's Felix Ritchie emphasises cooperation and positive management. The 'Five Safes' framework breaks down data access into five 'risk dimensions': safe projects, safe people, safe data, safe settings and safe outputs. Simultaneously, we explain and emphasise the impact that the data providers’ attitude has on the success of any data strategy; we have developed much of the theory in this field. With our help, data providers are using positive management rather than relying on threats or statistical tools, and researchers have world-leading access to sensitive research data.

This approach has been widely adopted; for example, in Australia the Five Safes has been embedded into both national and state levels of government, and even into legislation. Work from BCEF is influencing policy in the UK, Europe, North America, Japan and South Africa. Professor Ritchie frequently advises the UK Office of National Statistics, most recently to help them develop a new national training programme around data protection in response to the Digital Economy Act of 2017. The Digital Economy Act itself was strongly influenced by the ideas developed at UWE Bristol.

Cancer Research UK and the Wellcome Trust have both used models about data confidentiality best practice derived from our research. The EU General Data Protection Regulation is set to see increased use of the models that our research has inspired for data providers around risk management.

We're proud to be one of the leading research departments in the field of data confidentiality. Our work is having a direct, tangible influence on government bodies and data users around the world, and we're building upon our success to move into exciting new fields of research.

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