ICO Blog: Data protection can help enhance, rather than deter, necessary information sharing

When the Information Commissioner told BBC News last week that ‘responsible data sharing in a good cause is always possible’, you’d have hoped nobody would have been surprised.

But while it seems obvious that there can be strong public policy grounds to share information, like when protecting the vulnerable, the news programme was discussing suggestions that a reluctance to do just that had been a barrier to protecting children in care.

Inevitably, one of the reasons given as to why the information wasn’t shared was the catch-all term of ‘data protection’. Time and time again we’re seeing the finger being wrongly pointed at essential safeguards in our information rights laws being a barrier to appropriate and effective sharing.

It is frustrating when that ‘data protection duck out’ surfaces, not just because it’s proven to be false but because applying the standards in our data protection laws can actually enhance the information sharing activity in practice.

It’s a message that we’re keen to make sure people are aware of, and it’ll be a key part of my presentation to delegates at Monday’s Multi-agency Information Sharing Conference. It’s crucial organisations realise that this important issue is not just about complying with the letter of the law. As the amount of information held about individuals grows and the demands for more and more information sharing increase, so does the need to inspire public trust and confidence in how their personal information is used and disclosed.

We have worked hard to ensure that organisations have the right tools for the job. We produced a Data Sharing Code of Practice that contains a wealth of good practice advice to help ensure well-justified data sharing takes place with the essential safeguards in place.

I’m not going to try to summarise that document here, but briefly, it covers the six essential issues to address when looking at sharing information: fairness, transparency, rights, consent, data standards and security.

Information sharing wasn’t just at the top of the news agenda last week, it’s also at the top of the public policy agenda with the Law Commission launching its consultation on data sharing between public bodies last week and we look forward to responding to that.

The key is to remember that information sharing and the Data Protection Act don’t have to be seen as being in conflict. The pair can be perfectly compatible. Following our guidance will not only help ensure data sharing is in compliance with the law but that it is effective in practice and, crucially, that it helps inspire public trust and confidence. Win, win, win.

Jonathan BamfordJonathan Bamford and the ICO’s Strategic Liason Department manage the ICO’s key relationships across the public, private and third sectors together with civil society and international contacts.
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