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A panel of experts in data protection was beaten yesterday by a simple question from the floor: "Can you give us an example of good data security practice by the British Government?"

The meeting, a Westminster eForum event, was to discuss what needs to be done to sort out the UK's woeful record of failing to care for its citizens data. Chris Pounder, from lawyers Pinsent Masons, said one reason for the difficulty in lobbying on privacy issues was that: "you don't really experience privacy when it is there but you do experience the absence of it.".

Approaches differed but there was general agreement on the need to give the ICO bigger teeth, and for amendments to data protection laws in order to change the culture within government departments and businesses. The event ended with a panel discussion on the way ahead for data security legislation.

Dr Chris Pounder, data protection consultant at Pinsent Mason, is opposed to separate breach notification legislation because he believes that area of law is already fragmented enough. He called for breach notification to be included in the Data Protection Act.

He said: "The ICO needs the power to audit and the ability to fine when transgressions occur. If you get them by the balls then their hearts and minds will follow - increase the risks for organisations with big fines for failure and that will cause a culture change."

Carrie Hartnell, programme manager for information security and privacy at Intellect, also supports a breach notification law, arguing that it would help rebuild public trust. She said a cultural change to data security was needed in society as well as within companies and organisations. This cultural change must come from the board of directors and senior managers throughout the whole organisation and not be limited to one group or compliance department.

Francis Aldhouse, principal of Information Policy and Rights and former deputy ICO, went even further. He said claimed data protection was "not a management priority" was tantamount to saying "we didn't care". Aldhouse called for focused legislative changes to create criminal charges which could be brought against company directors or senior civil servants when breaches occur. He suggested companies which could prove they had effective processes in place to protect data could be granted immunity from prosecution.

He said: "The only way to get senior managers to take this seriously is to make them suffer criminal penalties when it goes wrong." Aldhouse said he was a young local government officer when Health and Safety legislation was introduced. A worker on a building site in Glasgow was killed and the city's chief engineer was personally prosecuted. He said this sent a frisson through the industry which resulted in the legislation being taken very seriously.

One issue which all speakers believed is not being properly addressed by many organisations is how information is disposed of safely.

Deputy Information Commissioner David Smith said: "The protection of privacy is not a priority particularly in the public sector and central government. It is the first thing to go when costs are cut."

He said that penalties were important but feedback from Nationwide, which was fined £1m by the ICO, was that damage to its reputation hurt more than the fine. He said the lack of accountability was still a major problem - if the naval recruitment officer had left £600,000 in cash in his car instead of a laptop with 600,000 recruitment records on it he would have been in much worse trouble.

He said: "Who is going to lose their job if there is a serious breach in your organisation? If you still can't answer that question then you still have a problem to solve." ®

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