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ICO to focus on reducing risk, not enforcement

'We have to be selective with our interventions'

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The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has said that its aim is to protect people from the risks associated with abuses of their personal data rather than strictly enforce the law. It has announced its broad aims in a new strategy document (pdf).

The document will guide its activities overall, prioritising the use of its resources which it said were not sufficient to do everything it could in the data protection arena.

"Being a strategic regulator means that, in so far as we have a choice, we have to be selective with our interventions," said the strategy document. "We will therefore apply our limited resources in ways that deliver the maximum return in terms of a sustained reduction in data protection risk. That is the risk of harm through improper use of personal information."

The ICO said it would concentrate more on the avoidance of this risk than strict enforcement of the law. "We are not seeking compliance with the law as an end in itself," it said. "Making our vision a reality means minimising data protection risk for individuals and society. The law is the main tool we have at our disposal to achieve this, but we go further and promote good practice.

"We cannot address all areas of data protection risk equally, nor should we attempt to do so."

The ICO identified a number of areas in which it will concentrate its attentions. These include fighting the unlawful trade in personal information, battling the increasing surveillance of UK residents, monitoring increasing information sharing between organisations and undertaking data protection supervision.

"One consequence of our approach is the likelihood that we will need to devote proportionately more of our policy work to developments in the public sector than to developments in the private sector," it said. "This is a recognition of where the most serious data protection risks can arise."

The ICO said it would try to prioritise, but that some judgments involved a degree of subjectivity.

"We will give priority to tackling situations where there is a real likelihood of serious harm to individuals or society. The necessary judgements especially about seriousness are not always easy. Loss of privacy can qualify as a harm in its own right, but there are difficult issues of objectivity and subjectivity. Some individuals value their privacy more than others. Our approach will be as objective as possible."

The ICO has consistently argued for more resources and greater powers. Information Commissioner Richard Thomas has warned that the UK is becoming a surveillance society and has said he needs more staff to tackle the problems of privacy and data protection.

Thomas submitted a proposal to Government in January of this year asking for a new offence to be created of recklessly or knowingly breaching data protection principles, which would be punishable by unlimited fines.

He also asked for the power to put an immediate stop to data processing by any organisation that he thought was "seriously unlawful".

Copyright © 2008, OUT-LAW.com

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

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