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UK Information Commissioner: protect your own data

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The Information Commissioner's Office - the UK public body tasked with protecting ordinary individuals from abuses by the rapidly-multiplying organisations which hold personal data - has today "published new guidance to help individuals understand how and why their personal information may be shared by organisations."

As the Financial Times noted yesterday, most of us nowadays leave a substantial electronic and paper trail which can be used in ways we might not expect. Well, not if we had our eyes shut and our fingers in our ears, anyway. Someone who is wanted by the cops and then goes to the supermarket and asks for the points on their loyalty card - and is then surprised to find the police waiting in the car park - is surely too ignorant to survive as a criminal. Likewise a crook who would continue to use his Oyster card on London public transport.

Not many people would have trouble with that sort of thing, at least not in the case of serious criminals. But obviously there has to be some kind of limit on the process. A cop with a normal warrant from a judge - fine. A spook with a secret warrant from a politician - well, maybe. But what about a repo man? Or a cop or spook with no oversight, who can track you merely because he feels like it, or because a computer has profiled you as dodgy in some way, or some lying nark of theirs has fingered you as a terrorist?

What about when you find it more expensive to get a mortgage, because you use the bus a lot and the lenders decide that bus users are more likely to default on loans? What if, in general, poor people began to find everything more expensive as a result of burgeoning databases?

What about when private detectives buy or hack databases, and search them for individuals? Uh-oh. Those guys can be working for anybody - your hateful ex-spouse, your mad bunny-boiling ex-lover, your business rivals, that guy you got in a flame war with last month. May be they are that guy. Bad news.

It's an argument that the Information Commissioner's Office has often made, referring to the danger of the "Surveillance Society" that could develop over the coming decade. Their point, essentially, is that you can't just trust big organisations of any kind to deal squarely with you - and as an individual in the UK you do have certain rights under the Data Protection Act. Essentially, anyone holding data on you ought to make sure that the info is:

• Fairly and lawfully processed

• Processed for limited purposes

• Adequate, relevant and not excessive

• Accurate and up to date

• Not kept for longer than is necessary

• Processed in line with your rights

• Secure

And of course,

• Not transferred to other countries without adequate protection

Arguably, the spooks at MI5 have busted a lot of these guidelines in recent times, when they told American spies that Bisher al-Rawi, Jamil el-Banna, and Abdallah el-Janoudi had left the UK for the Gambia and that they had previously been arrested in possession of parts for a car bomb.

This was not actually true at all, and - as it turned out - definitely a case of transferring data abroad without adequate protection. The men were snatched by US agents shortly after arrival in the Gambia and readied for transport to a secret holding facility in Afghanistan.

In the event, MI5 partially redeemed themselves by getting the two British nationals among the group released before this could happen; but the other pair were held in secret jails and then Guantanamo Bay for years.

Do we anticipate an MI5 prosecution under the Data Protection Act? Perhaps not. We'll have to hope that the Information Commissioner does better with some of the other database miscreants currently on the loose.

Perhaps they can stop the transport people operating people-tracking channels, for instance? The FT quotes Transport for London as saying that "there is no bulk disclosure of data," with respect to the Oyster card, which sounds hopeful.

But then, until recently they could have said the same about the Congestion Charge numberplate-scanners.

More from the Information Commissioner here

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