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Data Protection Act kicks in

Massive implications for UK business

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The first transitional period for the Data Protection Act (1998) ended yesterday and the second starts this morning - with huge implications for all UK businesses.

From today (Wednesday 24 October), any company in the UK will basically have to hand over whatever personal data they possess on someone - whether electronically or on paper - for a fee of no more than £10 and within 40 days. If they fail to do so, they could face a fine of up to £5,000.

Most at risk of logistical nightmares are small companies, employment agencies and estate agents. Small companies in particular are concerned that they will have to hire someone full-time just to hand over information - a big drain on resources.

However, that's the law and as the government and various recent reports have pointed out, if you arrange your business in such a way that gathering such information is quick and efficient, it will have positive knock-on effects on the rest of your business.

The issues here are enormous, so we'll give a very brief rundown and then point you in the direction of the Data Protection Web site that has a huge amount of (mostly clearly written) information for anyone concerned.

Incidentally, the Act also has extensive implications for Web sites both here in the UK and abroad, so we'll cover that in another story.

What does the Act cover?
Personal data gathered and processed by you or your company

And what is "personal data"?
Information about living, identifiable individuals. This means any identifiable data, such as a name or address.

Is this Act a good idea or just a massive pain in the arse?
It's a good idea. It pulls the balance of rights back away from companies and towards individuals. Those that wish to record, use and/or sell your personal data will have to do so transparently. They will also have to tell you what information they have on you and you are entitled in law to change any of it that is wrong.

That said, it will also be a massive pain in the arse for many companies that aren't set up to release this information. But it's a rough-with-the-smooth deal here. All companies - no matter what their size - are equally affected.

And if I refuse to do it?
Then you can be fined £5,000 plus costs at a Magistrates Court, or an unlimited fine in the courts above that. You have 40 days to provide someone with their data - however, that 40 days may only start when you have sufficient information to find the data, when you have enough proof that the person is who they say they are and you have received the maximum £10 fee (if you have asked for it).

So what do you get for your tenner?
A company will have to disclose all information they have on you, both on a computer and in any filing cabinet. It will have to say why that information is being processed, who may be given that information and where it came from. All this can come as a computer print-out, a letter or a form. To get this information, you need only send a letter to the relevant company, saying: "I want to see what information you hold about me."

Anything else?
Yes, companies will need to follow five basic principles of good information handling. These are that the data must be:

  • Obtained fairly and lawfully;
  • Held only for specific and lawful purposes and not processed in any matter incompatible with those purposes;
  • Relevant, adequate and not excessive for those purposes;
  • Accurate and where necessary kept up to date;
  • Not kept for longer than necessary.

You will also have to work along with the Act so that if anyone asks for the information, you have to give it; if they ask for it not to be used for direct marketing, you have to make sure it isn't; if they ask for wrong or inaccurate data to be changed, you have to do it.

Then of course, you have to make sure that adequate security measures are in place to prevent the unauthorised disclosure of the information. And also make sure the data is not sent outside the EU unless you are satisfied of that country's security arrangements.

Don't that all sound like fun? Everything you need to know is on the Data Protection Web site at http://www.dataprotection.gov.uk. ®

[Story first published on Monday 22 October]

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