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Watchdog gets new powers for public sector data mining

Fraud 'fishing expeditions'

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The Audit Commission has published a revised code of practice which will govern its extended powers to obtain and search data from public sector bodies.

The commission has been given new rights to compel public bodies to provide it with data which it can then compare to other data sets for the detection of fraud.

Civil liberties activists have objected to the parts of the Serious Crime Act which awarded some agencies, such as the Audit Commission, the right to acquire and use more sets of data than previously.

Liberty said when the law was first published that it allows for previously illegal general trawls for information rather than searches specific to an investigation. "New measures include data matching powers which will allow electronic 'fishing expeditions' not based on suspicion or intelligence," said a Liberty statement.

The code, though, says that "the commission will only choose data to be matched where there is evidence of fraud or potential fraud".

Liberty policy director Gareth Crossman said investigations themselves were not a problem, but that his organisation had doubts about data matching as a technique. "Of course there is no problem with targeted investigations where there is intelligence about individual fraud. However, 'data matching' exercises are comparable to fishing expeditions where no suspicion is necessary before private details are electronically sifted."

The code allows the Audit Commission to compel almost any body which it audits to provide it with data which it can then compare with other data that it has from that organisation. It identifies disparities in the data and hopes to discover fraud in that way.

The commission's guidance says the Data Protection Act applies to it and that "wrongful disclosure of data obtained for the purposes of data matching by any person is a criminal offence".

The Serious Crime Act increased the penalties for wrongful disclosure, introducing the threat of imprisonment for the offence for the first time.

The new powers given to public authorities to perform data matching also for the first time allow them to perform comparisons with sets of data from the private sector, though it cannot compel banks and building societies to provide the data.

The commission has published the code and has invited comments on it in a consultation process due to close at the end of May. It said it hopes to put the finalised code to Parliament in July.

See: The Code

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

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