USING supermarket loyalty card information about the nation's shopping habits has been proposed by Scottish Government researchers to help draw up health policies.

The data would be useful for tracking spending on alcohol or cigarettes and may be used to inform healthy living campaigns, it has been suggested.

The idea is an example of an ambitious Scottish Government plan to share more data between the public, private and voluntary sectors for research purposes.

This could involve bodies ranging from the NHS, police and local councils to pharmaceutical companies, retailers, and children's and health charities.

The data, which will be accessed on an anonymous basis, could be used for research to develop new drugs, plan and improve local services and give insights into health, illness and disease in the population.

But civil liberties campaigners have raised concerns over striking the balance between public good and individual privacy.

Jim Killock, executive director of the civil liberties organisation Open Rights Group, said: "There can always be privacy issues that arise from any data sharing.

"It is very important ethically, as well as practically, that people should be asked if they don't want their data shared. And if they don't then that data should be kept private.

"It is very important that the Scottish Government thinks about people's ability to opt out."

He added: "It would be really disturbing if the fact you bought cigarettes ended up being something that was accessible to your doctor, or worse, an insurance company.

"It is not to say that potentially there isn't research value in all of this, it is just that people should have a choice whether they participate or not. Governments look at this data and think they are going to get a huge amount of value out of it - whether or not that is true, they are not necessarily going to spend lots of effort making clear to their citizens what the consequences of data sharing might be for them."

One of the main concerns from civil liberty campaigners about the government's data plan is the wide sharing of highly confidential information, such as medical records.

James Baker, campaign manager for privacy campaign group NO2ID, emphasised the public should know who could access their information.

He said: "In many cases people would be happy if it is for medical research, but they still need to have consented to that kind of sharing, we would argue.

"You should be able to say you don't want your medical records shared with someone else without your consent.

"It is the same even with your shopping habits - do you really want a researcher knowing what you have bought from a supermarket, if you haven't consented to it?"

Baker also queried the security of using anonymous data as a justification for sharing information without consent.

"It is okay if you have one set of data, but when you cross-compare it with another set of information you can find out who people are," he said.

The Government's plan for the Data Linkage Network is to make Scotland recognised across the globe as a "hub of innovative and powerful statistical research, attracting investment and job creation".

A recent report carried out on behalf of the Government examined the public's view of the proposals.

Details of presentations made to the public, published in an appendix to the report, have indicated how information may be shared.

An example is supermarket loyalty cards, which "contain a lot of detail about individuals' patterns of consumption".

It said: "This could be useful for researchers in the Scottish Government who are interested in people's spending or lifestyle habits.

"This information might be relevant for understanding rates of alcohol or cigarette consumption which might help to inform healthy living campaigns."

Another example is a pharmaceutical company requesting access to medical records to assess the side-effects of a drug.

Richard Simpson, Labour shadow minister for public health, said he believed patients should have more control over who can access their records within the health service. He added: "If the patient cannot be identified then fair enough - we do need good linkage between all relevant sectors for the purposes of research."

BMA Scotland said it "generally supports" the sharing of non-identifiable data for research purposes, but with sufficient safeguards.

A spokeswoman said: "Patient data should be clearly anonymised and we would expect a robust process to ensure that individuals wouldn't be identified by any shared data."

However, sharing information from loyalty cards was not welcomed by supermarket representatives.

David Martin, head of policy and public affairs at the Scottish Retail Consortium, said he had "grave concerns" about such a proposal.

"If that information is being shared with third parties in whatever form, it opens up a raft of issues around that in terms of public trust in these schemes, which could undermine them," he said.

Martin argued the data was often not of sufficient quality for research. "With regards to the suitability of the information I think the Scottish Government are barking up the wrong tree on this one," he added.

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said the publication of the data linkage strategy had followed a consultation process and the results of the research on public acceptability on data sharing would also be considered.

She added: "We have set out our plans to improve the way data is used for statistical research. The programme aims to make better use of data that already exists across Scotland, in order to inform policy decisions and contribute to academic progress.

"We are working to build on existing programmes to ensure that the benefits of data linkage are delivered in ways which are legal, ethical and secure. We are also working to enhance transparency and the protection of personal data by driving up standards in data sharing and linkage procedures."

She added it was "very important" the views of the public and other organisations were fully considered.