Four in ten organisations obstruct access to personal data

23 June 2014
By Edd Gent
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Organisations are flouting European rules on citizens' right to access their personal information

Organisations are flouting European rules on citizens' right to access their personal information

More than four in ten organisations obstruct access to people’s personal data in contravention of European law, a new study has found.

European and national laws giving citizens the right to know how their personal data is used, shared and processed by both private and public sector organisations, are being flouted by organisations which are making what should be a straightforward process complex, confusing, and often unsuccessful.

Citizen data access requests were sent from 10 European countries to 184 public and private sector organisations asking for a range of information, including paper, digital and CCTV records.

Each requests asked data controllers to disclose the personal data held; disclose any third parties with whom data had been shared and disclose whether and how data had been subject to any automated decision making processes.

Researchers found 43 per cent of requests did not result in personal data being disclosed or data subjects receiving a legitimate reason for the failure to disclose their personal data, while in over half of all cases (56 per cent) no adequate or legally compliant response was received concerning third party data sharing.

Study lead Professor Clive Norris, a specialist in the sociology of surveillance and social control from the University of Sheffield, said: “We part with our personal data on a daily basis, creating vast and invisible reservoirs of actionable personal information.  We do this actively and passively, and our experience of the world is reshaped in ways that we don’t appreciate.

“We are selectively marketed to, our locations are tracked by CCTV and automated licence plate recognition systems and our online behaviour is monitored, analysed, stored and used.  The challenge for all of us is that our information is often kept from us, despite the law and despite our best efforts to access it.”

The study forms part of the IRISS (Increasing Resilience in Surveillance Societies) project, funded by the EU and looked at citizen interactions in the domains of health, transport, employment, education, finance, leisure, communication, consumerism, civic engagement, and security and criminal justice.

In over two-thirds of cases (71 per cent) the request for information on automated decision making processes were either not addressed or not addressed in a legally compliant manner and acknowledgement letters were received in only 34 per cent of cases, which meant data subjects had no idea whether the requests were being dealt with.

Even in those cases where successful outcomes were achieved the process of submitting an access request was often complicated and time-consuming and in 31 per cent of cases disclosure was incomplete and researchers had to to pursue data controllers for more information.

In general, public sector organisations performed better than those in the private sector, with only 43 per cent engaging in restrictive practices compared with 62 per cent in the private sector.

While loyalty card scheme operators disclosed data in 86 per cent of cases, they did not perform as strongly in providing information about automated decision making processes (only 50 per cent of cases) and only 30 per cent of responses from banks disclosed information about third party data sharing.

In a significant minority (20 per cent) of cases, it was not even possible to locate a data controller, to whom subjects could deliver an access request, and requests for CCTV footage were particularly problematic, with seven out of ten requests for CCTV footage being met by restrictive practices from data controllers or their representative.

Norris said: “In our view, there is an urgent requirement for policymakers to address the failure of law at the European level and its implementation into national law. Organisations must ensure that they conform to the law.

“In particular, organisations need to make it clear who is responsible for dealing with requests from citizens; they need to train their staff so they are aware of their responsibilities under law; and they need to implement clear and unambiguous procedures to facilitate citizens making access requests.

“Finally national data protection authorities must have the legal means and organisational resources to both encourage and police compliance.”

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