France battles on for data privacy

Been wronged by your phone company? Concerned that your data isn't being kept securely? From January 2003, UK consumers can turn to Otelo for help

She may no longer be the UK's information commissioner, but Elizabeth France is still fighting to make sure that companies don't abuse the privacy of their customers.

France is now the UK's first telecommunications ombudsman, and on Thursday she warned that companies who fall foul of her organisation could be forced to pay compensation of £5,000.

Speaking at the e-Security Conference 2002 in London, France explained that her new role allowed her to take action on behalf of customers who have been wronged by a telco, for example, by their personal data being published online or their bill being sent to another customer.

As telecoms ombudsman, France explained she has the opportunity to pursue individual breaches of a customer's privacy -- something she said wasn't always possible as information commissioner.

"Before, if a customer came to me with a data protection problem I could only consider whether it was a regulatory issue -- whether the company was failing to comply with the data protection act. As the telecommunications ombudsman, I can help individuals," said France.

France took up her post on 1 October this year, and the Office of the Telecommunications Ombudsman -- known as Otelo -- will begin resolving complaints about telecommunications services on 1 January 2003.

Otelo has a range of powers at its disposal to use against companies which it believes are at fault. It can demand an apology, force a firm to provide a service, or levy compensation of up to £5,000.

"We live in an era of rights and responsibilities, an era where customers are aware of their rights," said France. "A jigsaw is coming together where there is now usually someone for consumers to turn to when things go wrong," she added.

France explained that she will also be liasing with her former colleagues at the Data Protection Commission where necessary, so companies who fail to take their customers privacy seriously could face the wrath of France's successor, Richard Thomas.

As ZDNet UK News reported earlier this month, the UK doesn't currently have an information commissioner in place. Thomas, a city lawyer, will take up the position in December.

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