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Watchdog wags finger at waffly privacy policies

Companies must cut the gobbledegook

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Privacy policies are full of jargon and are designed to reduce organisations' liability rather than to help people understand what their personal data might be used for, the UK's privacy watchdog has said.

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has published guidelines on what privacy policies should look like and is engaging in a consultation on its draft code of practice.

"The ICO believes that some existing privacy notices contain too much legal jargon and are written to protect organisations, rather than to inform the public about how their information will be used," said an ICO statement about the consultation.

Privacy policies are the explanations that companies use when they gather people's personal information such as names, addresses and telephone numbers. They are often published side by side with fair collection statements. The gathering and use of this information is governed by the Data Protection Act (DPA).

The ICO has published its code of practice in order to encourage companies to be clear and fair about how they will use data, it said.

"Collecting information about people in the proper way lies at the heart of good data protection practice," said Iain Bourne, head of data protection projects at the ICO. "As more and more of our personal details are collected, we want to ensure that privacy notices provide clear, user friendly information to the public about how their personal details will be used and what the consequences of this are likely to be."

Privacy notices should be used when information will be used in an unusual way said Commissioner Richard Thomas in the consultation document.

"The duty to actively communicate a privacy notice is strongest where the intended use of the information will be unexpected, objectionable or controversial, or where the information is confidential or particularly sensitive," he said.

Thomas said that good privacy policies will "make sure individuals know how information about them will be used, and what the consequences of this are likely to be. It will also allow them to build up a picture of the sheer scale and sophistication of the systems that collect so much information about all of us."

The DPA allows the ICO to prepare codes of practice, but a breach of the code will not in itself be a breach of the law, and the ICO could not take direction action on code breaches.

The ICO said that it will take account of a company's compliance with the code's principles when a complaint has been made to it about a company's privacy practices.

The DPA demands that companies process personal information fairly. The ICO said in its guidance that this can mean either that it is processed as people would expect it to be, or that it is processed differently but a privacy notice informs them of this.

The draft code of practice contains examples of good and bad privacy notices. The consultation on the draft is open until 3 April.

See: The consultation (17-page/1MB pdf)

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