IMPRINTS gives evidence to UK government

02 Apr 2014

The Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons is conducting an inquiry about the government using Social Media Data and Real Time Analytics, in the context of the Big Data strategy of the government: 
Two questions speak to our research:

- What are the barriers to implementing real time data analysis? Is the new Government data-capability strategy sufficient to overcome these barriers?

- What are the ethical concerns of using personal data and how is this data anonymised for research?

The IMPRINTS research has provided insights that make it possible to predict public response to using social media data for government purposes. We summarize the 10 take-away-points, and discuss the implications. The full report is available here.

  1. Academic and marketing research has produced a number of uncontroversial insights that are of direct relevance to the UK Big Data strategy to use social media data for studying social processes as they occur in real time.
  2. This Big Data strategy takes place in the context of a ‘privacy paradox’, which refers to people eagerly sharing their personal data through online social networks, while simultaneously objecting to governments or corporations requesting, collecting or analyzing these personal data.
  3. UK citizens consider their social media profile and status updates as highly personal and sensitive data that they don’t want to share with outsiders; a clear expression of the privacy paradox.
  4. The UK public feel uncomfortable about their personal data being mined and tracked without their knowledge.  A significant number of them also would like to have control over their personal data through opt-in strategies, especially when they feel these data are sensitive.
  5. People find data mining and surveillance technologies acceptable in the immediate aftermath of collective or individual experiences with terrorism or identity crime; this acceptance wanes with time. They are uncomfortable with data mining and surveillance technologies for commercial, policy or research purposes.
  6. Less than two thirds of the UK public trust the government to protect their personal information.
  7. People's trust in the government's handling of personal data depends not only on the performance of government but also on individual political and religious beliefs, lifestyle and age.
  8. The Big Data strategy of the UK government takes place in a social and cultural context that is pervaded by real and fictional stories about the surveillance powers of the government.
  9. Opinions about whether such powers are right or wrong are evenly divided among the general UK public, with younger people, people with progressive views and the Scots more opposed than others.
  10. Only a limited use of social media data for the purpose of crime and terrorism prevention, subject to transparent procedures and processes of accountability, has a chance of being perceived and accepted by the wider UK public as good governance.


Because people consider their social media profiles and updates as highly personal data, any attempt by the government to tap into these data, even on an aggregate, meta-level, is bound to tread on people’s sensitivities. This is exacerbated by a relatively high distrust of the UK government’s handling of personal data, and a social and cultural climate in which state surveillance is continuously presented as problematic. People will mind less about social media data mining when there are clear anti-terrorist or crime-fighting purposes for mining these data, but will be reluctant about and opposed to other uses. This opposition will be strongest among younger people, people with progressive political views and people from Scotland. The implication of this is that only a limited use of social media data, subject to transparent procedures and processes of accountability, has a chance of being perceived and accepted as good governance.  A wider mining of these data will be considered invasive, and might result in a further decrease of trust in government, potentially with consequences for its wider e-government strategy and services.