Data Protection Act (UK)

Data protection Act 1998; possible amendment needed according to Nick Clegg?

The Data Protection Act deals with how data collected on identifiable living people is processed. It is a principle used to protect people’s personal data from being processed without consideration.

In the EU the Data Protection Directive covers this (officially Directive 95/46/EC which covers the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data and on the free movement of such data). This directive was adopted in 1995 and just as the Data Protection Act, it regulates the processing of personal data within the entire European Union.

Aspects covered by the Data protection act and the Data protection Directive for general data includes that personal data may be processed in so far as it is adequate. That means that it is relative and proportionate to the purpose for which is has been collected in the first place. Any data considered excessive, inaccurate, out of date, and incomplete is not appropriate and falls under both these acts.

When dealing though with sensitive personal data such as religion and sexual orientation (among other things), extra restrictions apply, and these extra restrictions were challenged recently by Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, who has asked for journalists to be given public interest defence in law so that they should not fear being prosecuted under Acts such as computer misuse, data protection, and bribery laws. He believes that if journalists break the law in the name of public interest, they shouldn’t be prosecuted.

When speaking about this public interest defence, he stated:

“I think there should be a basically a public interest defence put in law,” “You probably need to put it in the Data Protection Act, the Bribery Act, maybe one or two other laws as well, where you enshrine a public interest defence for you, for the press. So that where you are going after information and you’re being challenged, you can set out a public interest defence to do so.” (source: ‘The Guardian’)

This legislation is being reviewed following concern about police getting access to journalists’ phone records to hunt for their sources.

So what exactly do the amendments propose? Two aspects proposed are (1) a new defence for journalists who unlawfully obtain personal data (section 55 of Data Protection Act) where it is done as part of a story that is in the public interest or in order to defend the public, (2) raising of maximum penalty for unlawfully obtaining personal data from a fine, to possibility of probation, community serve, and imprisonment up to two years for very serious cases, What would constitute ‘public interest’? Public interest is, according to the Random House Dictionary,  “1. the welfare or well-being of the general public; commonwealth. 2. appeal or relevance to the general populace: a news story of public interest.”

Public interest is one of the core democratic principles of government.

Whether these changes are made, and when they are made will depend on the agreement of the Conservative party about putting forward some government proposals in the near future.