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UK Data Protection Bill tweaked to protect security researchers

Re-identification of data will not be a crime, as long as you warn the authorities

By Richard Chirgwin

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The United Kingdom has revealed amendments to its Data Protection Bill to de-criminalise research into whether anonymised data sets are sufficiently anonymous.

The legislation, first floated in August 2017, gave rise to worries that researchers would commit a crime if they broke whatever measures were used to anonymise research data sets such as medical records.

Such research is important because it can show when anonymisation hasn't worked and creates privacy problems.

The UK amendments, introduced by Lord Ashton of Hyde, Parliamentary under secretary of state at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport give “effectiveness testing” researchers the all-clear, as long as they report successful re-identification to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) within three days.

The other conditions from the draft legislation [PDF] are:

“The first condition is that the person acted— (a) with a view to testing the effectiveness of the de-identification of personal data, (b) without intending to cause, or threaten to cause, damage or distress to a person, and (c) in the reasonable belief that, in the particular circumstances, reidentifying the information was justified as being in the public interest.

"The second condition is that the person notified the Commissioner or the controller responsible for de-identifying the personal data about the reidentification— (a) without undue delay, and (b) where feasible, not later than 72 hours after becoming aware of it.”

The UK bill is at odds with Australia's drafted, but as-yet-un-passed, legislation to criminalise re-identification. The bill was drafted after Melbourne University computer scientists Drs Vanessa Teague, Chris Culnane and Ben Rubenstein showed that medical data sets published by the government were weakly protected. Under the legislation, researchers would need ministerial sign-off before they attempted such work.

Privacy researcher Lukasz Olejnik, a critic of re-identification bans, told The Register: "GDPR is intended as a pro-consumer data privacy regulations. It was surprising that UK's Data Protection Bill proposals' contained clauses that potentially could later become misused to target security and privacy researchers."

He said the amendments proposed by Lord Ashton "contain some reasonable compromises. Although such research is still regulated, researchers acting in the public interest will have less to worry if they disclose vulnerabilities to Information Commissioner's Office."

Technology is now so central that bad policing is "a risk to society", Olejnik said. "In this case, reidentification ban would not only be ineffective, but could also back-fire at researchers with good intentions. You might imagine companies refusing to fix their systems, but instead focusing on chasing researchers. As a result, a regulation intended to increase privacy protections, could end up decreasing it."

Giving the ICO a mediating role, he said, could give organisations "additional motivation to fix their system due to the associated risk of fines." ®

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