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UK's privacy watchdog not very bitey

Trailing Europe on fining powers

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The UK's privacy watchdog lags most of Europe in the strength of its powers, according to research produced by a data protection journal.

While 16 of the EU's 27 data protection watchdogs have the power to impose fines, the UK's Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) is still waiting to be granted that power, Privacy & Data Protection found.

Last May the Government surprised observers when it gave the ICO the power to fine companies behind serious data breaches. Those breaches either have to be deliberate or be the result of a failure to take reasonable steps to stop a foreseeable breach.

Those powers, though now part of the Data Protection Act, await a ministerial order to bring them into force. It is not yet clear how much the fines, or monetary penalty notices, could be. The journal Privacy & Data Protection said that the powers exist in most other EU states.

"For the most part, elsewhere in the EU offences such as failures to deal with subject access requests accurately, failures to notify of processing, and breaches of fair processing and security requirements, are punishable by fines in the thousands [of euros]," it said.

Privacy & Data Protection said that data protection authorities in 17 of the EU's 27 member states had the power to fine organisations for data breaches.

Information Commissioner Richard Thomas has called time and again for greater powers. He has long sought the power to audit any organisation's data handling without their permission. In the aftermath of HM Revenue and Customs' loss of 25 million people's personal data in 2007 his office was given that power, but only in relation to public authorities.

He has also long campaigned for the power to issue fines as well as for autonomy from Government department the Ministry of Justice. Thomas has said it would be preferable to have the freedom to report directly to Parliament rather than directly to an arm of Government.

The PDP research found that 16 EU member states have data protection regulators with the power to fine. These are Bulgaria; Cyprus; Czech Republic; Denmark; Estonia; France; Greece; Italy; Latvia; Malta; the Netherlands; Portugal; Romania; Slovakia; Slovenia; and Spain.

Spain's regulator has the power to issue the biggest fine and has issued the highest fine in the EU, PDP said. It fined the maker of the Big Brother television programme €1.1m for failing to protect the personal data of applicants for the programme.

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