ICO blog: Information rights in a cold climate

It’s been a busy year for information rights – the right to privacy and the right to know. Data protection breaches, freedom of information disputes, the News of the World and the Leveson Inquiry. They’ve all kept information rights in the spotlight. 2012 is going to be busy too – and busier still at the ICO where upholding information rights is what we do. Policy, technology, and the concerns of citizens and consumers are combining to put ‘our’ issues high up the agenda in politics, business and the media.

The start of 2012 marks a pivotal moment for both data protection and freedom of information. In just a few weeks we expect to see details of the EU Commission’s proposals for the future legal framework for data protection. At the same time, the process of post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act is under way. The ICO will be playing a full part in the debates on the future shape of the information rights regimes. We are also very much engaged with the Government’s Open Data and Transparency strategy.

So there’s a big agenda for 2012. The ICO’s approach will be practical but principled. We will be speaking up for information rights. And to demonstrate our engagement, the ICO is this week publishing its Information Rights Strategy. There’s more on this at the end of this post.

But first, a warning. I believe that individuals are increasingly aware and concerned to assert their information rights. But just because rights are talked about doesn’t mean they are respected in the cold climate of austerity, with cuts in the public sector, cut-throat competition in the private sector – and an element of both in the voluntary bodies/charities sector. The danger is that rights are seen as a nice to have in the good times, but a bureaucratic inconvenience when times are hard.

The ICO exists to promote openness by public bodies and data privacy for individuals. We uphold information rights in the public interest. And we will do that, whatever the weather.

We’re here to enforce the Data Protection Act and the Freedom of Information Act – information rights legislation that supports the fundamental rights of the citizen. It also has the potential, rightly applied, to deliver huge benefits in terms of better government, better services, and the protection of freedoms.

It’s in the tough times that we most need to defend the rights of the individual against abuse of power by organisations, both public and private. And information rights are under pressure right now – a victim primarily of the economic climate.

Data protection and freedom of information are too often seen as a mere ‘back office’ function – to be cut. The people dealing with information security and access to information are under real pressure, hit by the double whammy of increasing demands for information from citizens and consumers on the one hand and reduced resourcing on the other.

Businesses under pressure in the downturn must be tempted to cut corners and push boundaries. That’s a bad call, since the first casualty of a big data breach is going to be a brand’s reputation. Consumers will abandon companies that disrespect their privacy. (And that’s leaving aside the ICO’s power to levy a civil monetary penalty of up to £500,000 for serious breaches of the data protection principles.)

Public Authorities struggling to deliver more and better for less and less may see the Freedom of Information Act as a distraction from the task in hand. From Town Hall to Whitehall we hear the cries of municipal disaffection and mandarin distain. But with seven years experience of the Freedom of Information Act we need to stop mourning the loss of ‘private government’ and embrace the dynamic possibilities of greater openness. Of course, post-legislative scrutiny will throw up ideas for doing things better. But the Act already provides proper exemptions for necessary confidentiality – and for dealing with vexatious requests. The law needs to be properly applied.

The danger today is that all the bold talk about transparency, Open Data and putting the citizen back in charge will in fact turn out to be change on the authorities’ terms with too little weight given to citizen’s rights. There’s a widening gap between the rhetoric of openness and the day-to-day reality of reluctance and foot-dragging.

That’s where the ICO’s Information Rights Strategy comes in. Nobody need doubt that the ICO is gearing up to defend information rights in 2012.

Our strategy reflects the increasingly integrated nature of the work of the ICO, responsible as we are for both the Freedom of Information Act and the Data Protection Act. For the first time we describe the information rights outcomes we are seeking and explain our approach to securing compliance. The strategy also confirms our current priority fields of action: health, credit and finance, criminal justice, internet and mobile services, and information security. And we set out how we shall apply the strategy in our day-to-day work at the ICO.

2012 is going to be challenging for all of us. But the challenge for the ICO is to uphold information rights – despite the cold climate which we are all of us facing.

If you’d like to get in touch with feedback or comments please find us on Twitter @ICOnews or email blog@ico.gsi.gov.uk

Christopher GrahamChristopher Graham, Information Commissioner, has a range of responsibilities under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the Data Protection Act 1998 and related laws.
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