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UK government data protection is a shambles

Freedom of information? We've heard of it

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The UK Government has failed to put in place basic data protection and integrity policies despite recent major information breaches, according to an online ID firm.

Responses to Freedom of Information requests by online identity firm Garlik reveal that all 14 of the government departments that responded lack basic systems for proving compliance with the Data Protection Act (DPA). Garlik sells services that allows consumers to identify what personal information about them is in the publicly available and manage how their identities appear online.

The DPA states that an organisation needs to act if someone tells it the information it holds on them is inaccurate. But only the House of Lords and the Serious Fraud Office maintained a written data correction policy or protocol. Even these government bodies failed to maintain regular independent audits.

Government departments including HM Revenue and Customs, the Department for Work and Pensions, Ministry of Defence, and the Independent Police Complaints Commission lack basic systems for proving compliance with the DPA - handling errors on an ad-hoc basis, if at all. The Department of Health claimed it had never been asked to correct data.

Garlik chief executive Tom Ilube said: "With HMRC and DWP data breaches fresh in people’s minds, these admissions reflect a surprising disregard by Government for the value of our personal information. These gaps and the absence of independent audits point to the root causes of the recent data breaches – a lack of robust accountability."

Ilube told El Reg that government departments ought to apply the spirit as well as the letter of DPA regulations. To do that, government departments "must have audits and show they have processes and procedures in place" to allow the public to correct inaccurate data.

"The mindset in government departments seems different from that in private sector organisations, such as banks, which know they have to audit. There are real consequences if the data on citizens held by government is wrong," he added.

With the national identity register and huge NHS databases on the horizon, the public can have little confidence that data held about them by the government is correct. As a result, important decisions affecting their lives may be based on erroneous information, Garlik warns.

Large scale databases typically have an error rate of between five and ten per cent, Garlik said, so a government database containing 10 million records might have between 500,000 and one million errors.

Garlik is calling on the government to pull up its socks by establishing written policies and procedures for monitoring the accuracy of information and correcting erroneous database entries. It also wants government departments to publish reports based on periodic independent audits. ®

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