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UK regulator urges caution on data sharing

Tells gov: think before you act

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The Information Commissioner has published some advice for government bodies that want to share information but think data protection laws prevent them from doing so.

The advice note gives a rough idea of the mindfulness public bodies ought to have for human sensibilities when they start shunting data between computer systems.

The gist of it adheres to basic data protection principles - have a sound reason for doing it in the first place, consider how it might effect ordinary people, give people proper consent before using and sharing information, and so on.

Scratch the surface, however, and it gets interesting. Last autumn, the government ordered a review of how data protection law might prevent it from realising its grand vision for information sharing. The rough idea was that an omniscient state might know enough about people's lives to justify its interference in their private affairs when they had broken no law.

This is a controversial idea to say the least (which perhaps explains why the review is late and, ironically, secret). The review's remit was also brash in that it implied that data protections might have to be cut back in order to give the grand vision room for manoeuvre.

The ICO started a quiet campaign in support of information sharing within the boundaries of existing law since the Cabinet Office announced last year that it and the Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA - now the Ministry of Justice) were reviewing whether existing protections should be cut back because they were too restrictive.

The ICO subsequently told the DCA that the whole exercise was unnecessary - existing law allowed the public sector to share information as long as it did so responsibly. Funnily enough, the government drew its justification for database-targeted social intervention from its mantra of "rights and responsibilities".

The ICO has refrained from wading into this one publically (the advice note is little more than a circular and its official guidance on the matter is still on the drawing board). But it has given an indication, which is the closest the establishment has come to a public debate on this very sensitive matter.

The regulator expects public bodies to weigh what it thinks would be the benefits of information sharing against the risk that it might offend people's privacy. It recognises that information might be shared either for an individual's benefit or for the greater good.

But the advice note claims that the ICO consider individuals first, to see if they would have reason to complain that the information sharing had treated them with "unfairness" or resulted in their "unwarranted detriment", including distress and embarrassment.

Ultimately, the benefits must outweigh the risks to individual privacy. ®

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