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Small companies should try to answer data protection queries in the normal course of business rather than treat them as formal requests, according to advice published by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO).

The ICO has issued guidelines (PDF) to help small companies deal with requests for information under the Data Protection Act (DPA). Aware that small companies can often feel overwhelmed by such requests and the complexity of the Act, the ICO has advised that as many requests as possible be treated informally.

"Individuals have a right under the Act to make a request in writing for a copy of the information you hold about them on computer and in some manual filing systems," explains the advice. "This is called a subject access request. They are also entitled to be given a description of the information, what you use it for, who you might pass it on to, and any information you have about the source of the information.

"Where you are happy to provide the information requested it often makes sense to do so as part of your normal course of business, rather than treating any written request for personal information as a formal request under the Act."

That informal process involves simply giving out the information, such as a guarantee number for a fridge or simple information related to a service that a company provides to an individual.

More complicated requests which are made formal can involve more data and can trigger some fixed rules. If you charge a fee for processing information, which can only be up to £10, you must provide the information within 40 days of receiving that fee, for example.

The guidance also says that any codes used in the data held by a company must be fully explained so that the person receiving the information is able to make full sense of it.

Companies must also be careful when providing information that involves a third party. Unless it has the explicit permission of a third party to pass on data to the requester, the company must black out that information, while providing as full a disclosure as it can to the person who made the request.

"The Data Protection Act gives us all important rights, enabling us to check the personal information that is held about us and to correct that information where necessary," said David Smith, the Deputy Information Commissioner. "This guidance sets out clear advice for small and medium sized businesses to help them deal with requests from individuals for access to information an SME might keep about them."

The guidance says a company that is confused about exactly what an individual wants from a request should seek clarification, and that it should ensure that its staff are trained to recognise a subject access request when they see one.

Copyright © 2007, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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