A Better Way to Protect Our Data
Burke, Nigel, The Independent (London, England)
When most people worry about the misuse of confidential data stored on computers, they assume that it is from companies that they have the most to fear. If a firm collects marketing data about customers, it might misuse it - for example, an airlin e might poach frequent flyers by ringing up and pretending that a rival airline's flights have been cancelled.
This may be a dirty trick , but it is tempting to forget that the worst a data-abusing company is ever likely to do is to try to sell you something. When government bodies get hold of the same data, the potential for harm is much more serious.
In principle, government bodies such as local authorities and the police are subject to exactly the same rules as businesses, as set out in the Data Protection Act. Yet the scope and power of government is such that the rules are narrow in application and limited in effect. A central principle of the Act is that the collection of data must be on a consenting basis; but nearly all the functions of government, from vehicle licensing to taxation, are coercive. So the principle does not fit, and little of the logic that flows from it can be applied. Plainly, a different kind of regulation is needed to secure the powers of public bodies, and to limit them.
The private sector collects a great deal of data, such as credit records, that the state is not in a position to do. The data's uses have to be licensed, and are limited to commercial activities, but if state organisations buy or requisition that information from them, they can do almost anything with personal data. The legislation merely ensures that they do it in an orthodox and bureaucratically approved manner.
Greater Manchester Police, for instance, are paying 30p per inquiry to a commercial credit reference agency to track down suspects through a database that may be more current and more detailed than the Police National Computer. …