Government policies threaten data privacy, warns information commissioner

Government policies threaten data privacy, warns information commissioner

National identity database is 'particular concern'

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Information commissioner Richard Thomas has listed a string of government policies that he feels threaten data protection rights.

The data protection watchdog provided the list to the House of Lords constitution committee as part of its inquiry into the impact of surveillance and data collection. He highlighted policies including the national identity database that will underpin the controversial ID cards scheme – “an area of particular concern” – the e-borders passenger checking policy, the full electronic health records being rolled out as part of the NHS’s £12.4bn computer overhaul.

Thomas also warned over plans to share road-charging data with police and sections of the Serious Crimes Act that authorised public sector agencies to access information held on private company databases.

The information commissioner said he questioned why “so much transactional data is going to be collected” on the national identity database, which would hold a record of every occasion an individual swiped their ID card through a reader.

Thomas was also “sceptical” about the need for a database on all children from birth “for rather vague purposes” of safeguarding their entitlement to education or healthcare, he told the peers. The ContactPoint database emerged from moves to improve child protection, but will cover all children not just those considered to be vulnerable to abuse.

It was “hugely important that parliament is vigilant” about data protection issues arising from legislation, Thomas said. He warned that “perhaps there hasn’t always been as much scrutiny as I would like to see”, citing the huge expansion of the national DNA database. DNA records taken by police were now held on the database even where individuals were not convicted of any offence, he said.

There were more DNA profiles on the database “than anyone would have contemplated” when the legislation establishing it was debated ion 2003, he said.

Last month, prime minister Gordon Brown ordered a review of data sharing, to be carried out by Thomas and Mark Walport, director of medical research charity the Wellcome Trust. The review would look at where “boundary lines” should be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable data sharing, and what safeguards were needed, Thomas told the Lords.

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