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Wednesday, 11 July, 2001, 16:21 GMT 17:21 UK
The problems of protecting privacy
computer database
People abusing access to computer databases have been prosecuted by the information commissioner
By BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

It should be no surprise that more people than ever are concerned that their privacy is at risk as our lives become ever more dependent on computers and online information.

Research revealed in the annual report of the Information Commissioner released this week, found that over 73% of adults are concerned about the amount of data being held about them on various computer databases.

But case studies in the report show that fears that the growth of the internet would lead to a serious erosion in privacy have yet to be realised.

None of the people or organisations convicted of breaking the data protection act, and only a few of those cautioned for breaching its principles, involve the internet or information gathered online. So far personal privacy is withstanding the internet revolution.

Protection problems

But abuse is rife in bricks and mortar companies. In the last year the Information Commissioner investigated almost 9,000 complaints and secured 21 convictions.

The report mentions examples such as a bank worker convicted for using credit checking facilities for her own ends, a telecommunications worker who got details of another customer's account for a friend, data gained by deception from the vehicle licencing agency, and the unlawful copying of a customer database.

Most of the prosecutions were brought for abuse of information held on a computer database or gathered without the consent of the person concerned.

But the report also warns that the opportunities that the internet and technology in general presents to government and law enforcement agencies should be taken up only if safeguards are also put in place that can limit abuse.

It said that government plans to put all its services online by 2005, and its greater reliance on electronic methods of dealing with citizens carries grave implications for privacy and human rights.

Already government departments that are using technology to clean up data records or reduce fraud are in danger of breaking data protection guidelines.

The report notes that some government departments: "do not necessarily have the same attitudes towards issues such as confidentiality". As an example it cites NHS plans to tighten up the protection of patient data which contrasts sharply with the work of the DSS whose Fraud Bill proposals "threatened very significant intrusions into individual privacy". The latter proposals have now been amended.

Legal challenge

But it is law enforcement agencies who seem to pose the gravest threat to privacy and civil liberties. The report notes concerns about the quality of data used on the Police National Computer, worries about plans to retain DNA information gathered during criminal investigations and fears about the new Criminal Records Bureau.

The also report re-iterates the Information Commissioner's concerns about European plans to make net service providers retain data about customers longer than at present. Some agencies want the data kept for up to seven years.

The agencies justify the proposal by saying that cybercrime means that without access to this data they can be left scrabbling for evidence to support prosecutions of computer criminals. The report said: "The retention of traffic data beyond the period demanded by technical and commercial reasons would be an invasion of the right to private life assured by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights."

From the end of January 2001 the name of the Data Protection Commissoner was changed to Information Commissioner to reflect the body's new responsibilities for freedom of information.

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