Privacy tsar: Data protection should be 'way of life'

Richard Thomas has called for the private sector to punish companies that don't respect customers' personal information

Breaking the government's 'culture of secrecy' while protecting the privacy of UK citizens is one of the key challenges facing the new Information Commissioner as he settles into his role.

Richard Thomas, 53, formerly the director of public policy at law firm Clifford Chance, took over from Elizabeth France in December 2002, and having got to grips with his new job, he on Tuesday stressed the importance of striking this balance between openness and privacy.

He said: "People will not trust government if there is excessive secrecy. And they will get increasingly anxious about a 'surveillance society' if they cannot be confident that information about their private lives is being handled properly. My job will be to shed more light on what the public sector is doing in our name with our money."

Thomas believes that there is a culture of "unnecessary secrecy" in many government departments but claimed that this is changing, with a clear recognition of the issues involved at the highest level.

"We've got through to the government," he told on Tuesday. "For example, Tony Blair wrote a preface to a recent data sharing report, which explores the scope to which public services can and should share data. But the prime minister said that any information shared must be protected. People must trust the government. It's not for me to say whether they do but we're getting that message across [to government]. That's the important thing."

But Thomas's role is not restricted to the public sector. He is prepared to prosecute breaches of the Data Protection Act -- with the courts able to impose unlimited fines on any transgressor -- but is more keen to get across the message that good information practice is simply good business.

He said: "In the private sector, one can harness the 'wagon of competition'. If companies get it wrong and don't respect customers' personal information, they'll be punished in the market."

He also wants to help organisations achieve compliance with the Data Protection Act and the Freedom of Information Act, and foster an environment where freedom of information and data protection are a "natural way of life".

He concluded: "The heart of my task is to promote good practice among all those who handle official or personal information. The best way to achieve this is to get organisations to see that this is in their own best interests. But this must be backed up by firm and well-targeted use of legal powers where necessary."

Before joining Clifford Chance, Thomas spent eight years within the public sector as director of consumer affairs at the Office of Fair Trading. His involvement with data protection issues go as far back as 1984, when he helped draw up the original Data Protection Act.

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