UK data privacy watchdog calls for more powers

The head of the UK’s data protection authority has called for more powers to carry out inspections and audits of organisations to check compliance with the Data Protection Act.

UK data privacy watchdog calls for more powers

Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, told Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee, that such new powers would go some way to ensuring public confidence in initiatives and technologies which could otherwise accelerate the growth of a surveillance society.

Currently the Information Commissioner’s Office must gain consent before inspecting an organisation, but Thomas told the Committee that data protection is an essential barrier to excessive surveillance and it is wrong that his Office cannot find out what is happening in practice without the consent of each organisation

‘The risks that arise from excessive surveillance affect both individuals and society as a whole,’ he said. ‘As well as risks such as identity mistakes and security breaches there can be unnecessary intrusion into people’s lives and loss of personal autonomy. There is also a concern that too much surveillance will create a climate of fear and suspicion.’

Thomas also called for the introduction of privacy impact assessments to compel organisations to set out how they will minimise the threat to privacy and address all the risks of new surveillance arrangements prior to their implementation.

‘It is essential that before new surveillance technologies are introduced full consideration is given to the impact on individuals and that safeguards are in place to minimise intrusion.’

He noted that such assessments are already commonly used in other countries including Australia and the USA.

Thomas said that he accepts that a lot of information gathering is essential and beneficial, but there must be balance and limits.

‘No one wants their electronic footprint to expose every aspect of their daily life. Positive action is required to ensure the potential risks do not manifest themselves. Otherwise the trust and confidence which individuals must have in all organisations that hold information about them will be placed in jeopardy,’ he said.

‘Last year I warned about the dangers of waking up to a surveillance society. While I do not believe that we are living in the type of society associated with totalitarian regimes it is important that there is a vigourous debate around the issue of surveillance – about where lines should be drawn and the restrictions and safeguards which are needed.’

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