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The Internet makes staying anonymous a challenge

Technology advances have eroded personal privacy says the UK ICO
Wed Mar 30 2011, 13:15

THE UK GOVERNMENT Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has decided that advances in the Internet and the scale of personal information that it produces are making staying anonymous a challenge.

The ICO, which last year decided that having Google cars drive around the country snooping on personal information was not an invasion of personal privacy, is sending the Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham to the Wellcome Trust where he will deliver a seminar on anonymisation.

While there Graham will pose a lot of questions about how best to avoid completely invading individuals' privacy, but apparently answer few.

"Ensuring important personal information remains anonymous is an ever increasing challenge. Just by going about our everyday lives, our movements, browsing habits and personal information are constantly being captured," said Graham in a statement as he prepared for the presentation.

"The information that can identity someone is no longer simply their name and address. It's their number plate scanned by a traffic camera, or the digital fingerprint that they leave behind when they file their tax return or renew their local authority parking permit online. How can we make sense of the big picture without compromising privacy?"

Not continually eroding the right to privacy by the use of number plate scanning, digital fingerprints, or run of the mill local government IT services seems to be the obvious answer, but not to Graham, who would apparently prefer to stare dreamily into the middle distance and spin yarns about acceptable balances and personal privacy favouring checks than offer any solutions.

"What is up for debate is how best we can assess the privacy risks. Data sets are derived from masses of bits of personal information," he said.

"But when can a statistic lead to someone being identified? And should we withhold publishing data where there is a small risk that privacy could be threatened? This seminar will examine how - in an age where more information is being collected about us than ever before - people's privacy rights can be respected."

The ICO is very good at speaking about things and is increasingly getting better at doing something about privacy breaches and data loss, but should it really be holding seminars on the compromises that need to be made between data harvesting and data protection? Or should it be leading discussions, setting the rules and collecting the fines?

If as an organisation it has been caught on the back foot by technological advances it only has itself to blame. The Internet is no young upstart and nor are online government services, numberplate recognition cameras, social networking websites or online advertisements. They are a fact of life, they impact on users and are embraced by organisations. However, it is one side of the equation that is reaping the rewards.

The fact that policing them turns a watchdog into a floundering fish is concerning, but perhaps the seminar will produce some results. µ


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