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ICO repeats jail call as complaints soar

Anyone listening to the watchdog puppy?

Complaints about potential privacy violations soared by 30 per cent last year, according to regulator the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO). Complaints about public bodies' failure to comply with the Freedom of Information Act jumped by 20 per cent.

The ICO is responsible for ensuring that organizations keep in line with the privacy protecting laws the Data Protection Act and Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR) as well as transparency law the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.

The ICO's annual report (pdf) has revealed that data protection enquiries jumped by 30 per cent in 2009/2010 compared to 2008/2009. The ICO received 33,324 enquiries, it said, including many 'subject access requests', which allow a person to view records held about them.

"The increase in complaints to the ICO is a cause for concern," the report said. "Subject Access Requests are the main reason for complaining to the Information Commissioner, the same as last year. The rights of individuals to access personal data accounted for over 28 per cent of complaints where the reason was specified.

"People were also worried about the disclosure of data and the accuracy of information being retained," it said.

The number of complaints about public authorities failing to abide by their FOI obligations to release data also rose, by 20 per cent, to 3,734.

"We continue to close cases without the need for formal decision notices, many through effective negotiation and discussion with public authorities to ensure that information is released when it is appropriate to do so," said the annual report. "We closed more than half our cases by informal resolution."

Information Commissioner Christopher Graham said in his foreword to the report that he was committed to continuing to campaign for jail sentences for people convicted of buying and selling personal information.

"I shall continue to press for a more effective deterrent to criminal behaviour by 'rogue' individuals," said Graham. "I continue to believe that the courts should be able to impose a custodial sentence, where appropriate, to tackle the unlawful trade in personal data that is the scourge of the digital world. Data theft is no victimless crime."

Graham also reiterated his view that the ICO should be funded more transparently and should report directly to Parliament, rather than to a Government department, as is currently the case.

"To carry out my duties effectively and with the full confidence of all parties, now is the time to formalise the governance arrangements for the Information Commissioner; suitable for an independent public official whose accountability is fully to Parliament rather than primarily via Departments of State," he said.

"I believe my predecessors and I have demonstrated the real independence of the Information Commissioner; but, with five years' experience of operating the Freedom of Information Act, I believe that the ICO has not just to be independent of government, but be seen to be independent in its reporting and financing arrangements," said Graham.

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