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UK government database holding student sexual orientation information

Lily Wakefield July 27, 2019
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Sexual orientation and religious beliefs are among personal data on students being held by the government. (Pexels)

The UK government is holding the sexual orientation and religious beliefs of millions of students in a database, often without their knowledge, according to a Freedom of Information request by Buzzfeed.

The sexual orientation of 3.2million and the religious beliefs of 3.7million students are stored by the Department for Education (DfE) in named data, rather than anonymous statistics.

According to Buzzfeed, records of the sensitive information go back to 2012/ 2013, which means the data is kept after they are no longer students.

The data held is part of the National Pupil Database, but is specifically collected and passed on to the government by the High Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

Information from the DfE states that holding the sensitive and personal information, or “special category data,” has a lawful basis under GDPR Article 9(2)(j): “Processing is necessary for archiving in the public interest, scientific, or historical research or statistical purposes.”

A DfE spokesperson told Buzzfeed: “We take data protection extremely seriously and we keep all personal information safe – in line with legal requirements.

“The information collected by HESA and shared with the department is done so we can meet our public sector obligations to carry out equalities impact assessment.

“These particular data items, which students don’t have to provide, are not shared by us outside of the department.”

Student information held in government database
Some universities were not making it clear in their privacy policies how students’ information would be used. (Pexels)

A digital campaigning organisation said collecting and sharing the information was “unclear and unfair”

However, although the DfE said it does not share the personal information, HESA, which shares the information with the DfE in the first place, does share the data with other organisations.

These include funding bodies in Scotland and Wales and the Office for Students (OfS). The OfS, in turn, can then share data with other organisations, including private companies.

According to Buzzfeed, although the OfS would be allowed to share the data with these parties, it has not currently done so.

The government stance is that organisations are only obliged to make clear where they will share the information, not where it will be shared by the next organisation once it is passed on, and it is often unclear to students that their information will reach the DfE database.

Jim Killock, executive director of digital campaigning organisation Open Rights Group, told Buzzfeed it was “simply unclear and unfair to be collecting and sharing information like this”.

“People should opt in when data is shared. It shouldn’t be passed from one organisation to another in this way, unless that is made clear and agreed upfront.”

Buzzfeed found that some universities were not making it clear in their privacy policies how students’ information would be used.

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