Policing the police

"Privacy is dead - get over it!” So proclaimed Scott McNealy, the CEO of Sun Microsystems, in 2000. It might appear that in an age of increased surveillance, with huge amounts of personal data floating around, he has a point. But privacy is a fundamental human right and we give it up at our peril, writes Nigel Shadbolt in the Times.

Privacy is essential for the proper functioning of a liberal, democratic society. The right to privacy gives people a space for intimacy, independence of action and freedom of speech. Privacy is a public good and benefits society in the same way that clean air does. It is something we would do well to protect.

The problem is that technology enables the State, companies, all of us to collect and integrate more and more personal information. Every five years this capability increases tenfold. It has put an end to “practical obscurity” - you can no longer lose yourself in the crowd. [...]

The one thing we know about databases of whatever stripe is that they contain data that is wrong. Garlik, the online identity experts, submitted 30 freedom of information (FoI) requests between September and November last year to government departments and offices. The Data Protection Act requires that an organisation must act if people tell it that the information it holds on them is inaccurate. Only three of the thirty departments contacted had written correction procedures in place. Only the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and the Department for Transport have had independent audits to show that they comply with the Act.

So my fourth proposal: all government departments must put in place written procedures to manage, monitor and report on the accuracy of the personal information they hold.

A fifth proposal is that all government departments be subject to periodic independent audits to prove that they comply with the Data Protection Act and that they should publish the results. [...]

This would also help to tackle the frustration of our Freedom of Information Act. It is difficult and tedious to exercise the right to information and get results back in a useful form. The process is cumbersome and too slow. Proposal seven is a requirement that all FoI requests and results also be made available in web-accessible formats. We would be in a different world now if that had applied to MPs' expenses.

How we should keep an eye on the powers that are watching us (The Times, 9 June 2009)