Putting you back in charge of your personal information

On the day that it has emerged that O2 has exposed it’s customers mobile numbers when browsing websites, the biggest shake-up of data protection laws since the creation of the internet is being proposed by the European Union.

In the UK, the current Data Protection Act – the main piece of legislation protecting how and why our personal information can be collected, and what can be done with it – was written before Google had launched. An overhaul is long overdue, restoring the balance in favour of the consumer and protecting our privacy.

Today’s proposals will put forward several key new rules, many of which we at Big Brother Watch have previously called for. A broad ‘right to be forgotten’ will mean when you leave a service, for example Facebook or Gmail, you have the right to insist that all your data is deleted once your account is closed.Furthermore, the changes will mean you must be given easier access to the data held on you, and should have the right to move it to another provider if you decide to switch.

Furthermore, if your data is lost or hacked, there will be a legal duty to notify the regulator within 24 hours. While we believe the law should go further and require notification of those individuals affected, this is a step forward from the situation where Betfair could keep a major data loss incident secret for 18 months.

As O2 customers have found out, being able to control what happens to your personal information when it is held by a third party is a major weakness in the current law. The current rules around monitoring and storage of your activity, where it is ‘assumed’ you consent by using a service, will be replaced with a much stronger requirement to explicitly seek people’s permission to gather and use data about you.

The proposals will enshrine a principle of data ‘minimisation’, meaning that the assumption will be data should only be held for the minimum amount of time necessary to fulfil the function it is needed for.

Data protection law is an essential part of protecting privacy in a digital era. Current laws do not adequately ensure consumers are informed when their personal data is being collected, nor give sufficient rights over their own information once it is captured. These proposals are a very welcome step forward to restore the ability for all of us to control what happens to our own personal information, and restore the balance in favour of the individual when it comes to stopping our activity online being recorded without our permission.

Update: we now have the full text. Key changes in the reform include:

  • A single set of rules on data protection, valid across the EU. Unnecessary administrative requirements, such as notification requirements for companies, will be removed. This will save businesses around €2.3 billion a year.
  • Instead of the current obligation of all companies to notify all data protection activities to data protection supervisors – a requirement that has led to unnecessary paperwork and costs businesses €130 million per year, the Regulation provides for increased responsibility and accountability for those processing personal data.
  • For example, companies and organisations must notify the national supervisory authority of serious data breaches as soon as possible (if feasible within 24 hours).
  • Organisations will only have to deal with a single national data protection authority in the EU country where they have their main establishment. Likewise, people can refer to the data protection authority in their country, even when their data is processed by a company based outside the EU. Wherever consent is required for data to be processed, it is clarified that it has to be given explicitly, rather than assumed.
  • People will have easier access to their own data and be able to transfer personal data from one service provider to another more easily (right to data portability). This will improve competition among services.
  • A ‘right to be forgotten’ will help people better manage data protection risks online: people will be able to delete their data if there are no legitimate grounds for retaining it.
  • EU rules must apply if personal data is handled abroad by companies that are active in the EU market and offer their services to EU citizens.
  • Independent national data protection authorities will be strengthened so they can better enforce the EU rules at home. They will be empowered to fine companies that violate EU data protection rules. This can lead to penalties of up to €1 million or up to 2% of the global annual turnover of a company.
  • A new Directive will apply general data protection principles and rules for police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters. The rules will apply to both domestic and cross-border transfers of data.