Data privacy watchdog tells MPs 'I need more power'

The information commissioner will call for his office to be given new powers allowing unannounced investigations at a parliamentary select committee hearing later today.


The information commissioner will call for his office to be given new powers allowing uninvited investigations at a parliamentary select committee hearing later today.

Data privacy watchdog Richard Thomas will give evidence to the Commons home affairs committee’s inquiry on the “surveillance society”.

He will tell the MPs that new measures are needed to protect data privacy, including privacy impact assessments and new inspection powers including the authority to make uninvited data privacy checks. At present the Information Commissioner’s Office must gain consent before inspecting an organisation for compliance with the 1998 Data Protection Act.

The government has signalled its intention to increase data sharing between public sector agencies, sparking concern among opposition politicians and privacy campaigners, while there is also concern about the implications of ID cards and the growing use of CCTV in Britain. But so far the information commissioner has stopped short of calling for amendments to the Data Protection Act.

The ICO has also been seen as toothless, with little scope for tough action. In March, the watchdog strongly criticised 11 banks that dumped customers’ personal data in outside bins – but administered only a warning and an instruction that the banks should undertake to comply in future.

Speaking ahead of the hearing, Thomas said: “People now understand that data protection is an essential barrier to excessive surveillance. But it is wrong that my 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. 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.”

He added: “There is also a concern that too much surveillance will create a climate of fear and suspicion. 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.”

Thomas will argue that privacy impact assessments would ensure that organisations set out how they will minimise the threat to privacy and address the risks of new surveillance arrangements before they are implemented. Such assessments are already commonly used in the US and Australia.

Thomas 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 vigorous debate around the issue of surveillance - about where lines should be drawn and the restrictions and safeguards which are needed.”

He added: “Many information gathering activities are essential and beneficial to modern life. But balance is needed and there must be limits. No one wants their electronic footprint to expose every aspect of their daily life.”

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