Saturday, March 23, 2013

Personal Privacy

Personal Privacy

Information is stored about each of us on a large number of computers. Such information has been stored in the past on paper but now it is stored electronically. It is therefore technically possible:

1 To use modern communications to send data about us from one computer to another.

2 To use the power of computers to process the data. For instance:

(a) All the facts stored about a given person could be brought together to provide a complete dossier.

(b) Records relating to financial problems or court appearances could be used by prospective employers, etc.

(c) Lists could be produced of all people in certain categories. These could be used for political or other purposes.

Many people feel that we should have the right:

1 To withhold information about ourselves.

2 To stop data being passed from one database to another without our knowledge or consent.

3 To find out what data is stored about us.

4 To have inaccurate data corrected.


1 Examples of centrally held data files

(a) Any British family could expect details about them to be held on numerous data files. Examples are:

(i) their health records on files at the doctor's surgery, the local hospital and the local health authority,

(ii) their income on computers owned by their employer and by the income tax office,

(iii) the state of their accounts on bank and building society computers,

(iv) the amounts they spend on electricity, gas, water, etc. are stored on files of the appropriate companies.

In fact often when people buy furniture or pay for a holiday or subscribe to a magazine, etc. their name and address go on computer file. Lists of these names and addresses can then be sold to advertising and similar companies.

(b) Police records-the police hold records on large numbers of people. These records include:

CD The Police National Computer, which has information on about 23 million people and includes data on:

people with criminal records, fingerprints,

stolen or suspect vehicles, vehicle owners.

(ii) The Special Branch Computer, which stores data on over 2 million people, many of whom are not criminals or even suspected of crime.

(c) The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre at Swansea. Information about all drivers and their cars is now held at this centre. Uses of this data have included:

(i) tracing owners of a particular make of car for the manufacturer so that they can be recalled for checking,

(ii) finding the most recent addresses of people who are dodging Income Tax.

2 Data laws in other countries

(a) Sweden- the Data Act of 1973 gives a citizen the right to be present while an official checks centrally held information. If the citizen objects to anything, an independent arbitrator decides what should be changed.

(b) USA-a 1974 amendment to the Freedom of Information Act gives citizens the right to be shown all information held about them by Government agencies.

(c) France-a law passed in 1978 bans references in computer files to citizens' religion, politics, race or health. Anyone has the right of access to data about themselves if they think the information held infringes the privacy law. It is thought each person in France is referred to in about 500 files.

3 The Data Protection Act in Britain

The Data Protection Act was passed by Parliament in 1984 and its provisions have gradually been coming into force since.

(a) This Act refers to:

(i) the data user-anyone who stores and processes computer data about people,

(ii) the data subject-anyone who has information about them stored by data users.

(b) The Act created:

(i) a Data Registrar, who is the person who sees that the Act is enforced.

(ii) a Data Protection Tribunal, to which people can appeal against the Registrar's decisions.

(c) Any data user and any computer bureau has to apply to the Data Registrar before they can store and use data about people. There are some exceptions such as payroll data or data held for 'national security' purposes. Those applying have to state what data they are storing, and what they intend to use it for. If their application is accepted then their name and details of the data held goes into a register. This register will be in large public libraries and anyone can go and have a look at it.

(d) The Act has some guiding principles of which the main ones are:

(i) data must be obtained fairly and lawfully,

(ii) data must only be held or used or disclosed in the way that has been registered,

(iii) data must be accurate,

(iv) people must be allowed to have information about them disclosed if they request it; if they can prove it is wrong it must be changed or deleted,

(v) data users and computer bureaux must protect the data they hold.

Personal Privacy

Fig 1 How the Data Protection Act works


In favour of more rights for individuals

l The Data Protection Act is not strong enough.

(a) The Act only deals with computer data and not with paper files.

(b) There are large numbers of organizations who hold data but who have not registered.

(c) Data subjects cannot complain about uses or disclosures of data if the data user is registered for that use.

(d) Data subjects can only complain about the inaccuracy of data if they have 'suffered damage' from it.

(e) Data can be held for 'National Security' purposes which people cannot gain access to.

2 If we had a 'Police State' the data could be used to people's disadvantage. This is not so impossible even in this country. Other countries, such as Chile, with a long history of democracy, have been taken over by dictatorships.

In favour of the free use of information

1 The Data Protection Act is largely unnecessary.

(a) The registration process costs a lot of money and is a lot of trouble to data users.

(b) A lot of people are likely to break the law unintentionally because they haven't registered properly.

(c) People should have the right to store some data about employees, pupils, etc. without them knowing about it.

(d) Stories about misuse of data or inaccurate data are exaggerated. There have been very few complaints to the Data Registrar so far about data users.

2 We would never have a police state in this country. The authorities only use their files against those who break the law. In other words they are used to protect the rest of us.