Privacy watchdog warns of data-sharing dangers

The Information Commissioner's Office has warned the public and private sectors about sharing too much data on individuals, and it has published research showing the public's concerns

Richard Thomas, the information commissioner, has warned public- and private-sector organisations of the dangers of an information-sharing "free-for-all".

The sharing of data between the police, the Identity and Passport service, health professionals, government departments and private companies needs to be proportionate and necessary, Thomas said, speaking at a House of Lords Constitution Committee inquiry into surveillance and data collection in the UK on Wednesday.

"I think we're all aware how much information the private sector collects on us," said Thomas. "Credit reference companies, airlines, travel companies, Google — [they] all collect data — while on Facebook the amount of information shared and passed around is quite staggering. The police and security services can see the benefits of data sharing, but there are substantial dangers in an information-sharing free-for-all. Primarily the data collected should be used for the purposes for which it was originally collected."

While data sharing between police and companies was necessary in the course of a criminal investigation, Thomas said organisations shouldn't be sharing information "just for its own sake".

"Information sharing is no panacea," said Thomas. "Equally we recognise the value of public service and law-enforcement implementation."

On Wednesday, The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) published research it has conducted into data concerns held by members of the public.

The research highlights how protecting personal information is becoming an increasing concern for many individuals. Nine out of 10 adults worry that organisations are failing to keep their personal information secure, while six out of 10 believe they have lost control over the way their personal information is collected and processed, the research found.

The ICO's work also found that 94 percent of individuals are concerned that organisations are selling their personal details to other organisations without their permission.

People now consider protecting their personal information as the second most socially important issue, above the NHS, national security and environmental issues, the report said. Top of the list is crime prevention.