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Privacy laws have become a convenient excuse for authorities who want to keep secrets, say medical researchers.

They are "hidebound by bureaucracy" in their efforts to develop medical breakthroughs from patient data, said the Academy of Medical Sciences in a report this week.

The academy's representatives complained that authorities are using privacy laws to justify conservative, restrictive and unhelpful attitudes toward the public good.

It has also become a convenient stance for secretive corporations. Yet often when authorities claim the privacy defence, it would not stand up to scrutiny. This is especially true when the data being sought is demographic.

Privacy is cited as the reason for not sharing data that can be disclosed without offending the law. A recent example is an excuse Microsoft gave to equality researchers from the Open University for not sharing information about women engineers.

The software giant claimed privacy laws prevented it from saying how many Microsoft-certified engineers were women. The OU got a note from the Information Commissioner to show the defence was nonsense - the researchers were asking for statistics, not names and addresses. Microsoft went silent.

It is an unfortunate irony that in a society that has adopted the principle of freedom of information in law, people who want to use information for the public good must have a thorough understanding of privacy laws if they want authorities to open up.

However, the the Academy of Medical Sciences has gone one step further - so much so that what at first appears to be an appeal against obstructive bureaucracy is, under the surface, a request for special treatment.

It has suggested that medical researchers have unique powers under the Data Protection Act. They have a right to use "identifiable" information in their research. Further, authorities, including the Information Commissioner (IC), "should accept this interpretation in their guidance and approval decisions".

Some sour grapes, perhaps? The IC - which has shown a fair eye in the use of its powers to date - will not give up your name and address so readily. It supports patient confidentiality and the protection of people's patient records, it said in a statement today.

"The Data Protection Act does not prohibit medical research but does put people in control of what happens to their most sensitive personal details, and this should only be overridden in exceptional cases," it added. ®

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