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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Information commissioners need to carry a big stick-and use it

With Federal and NSW information commissioners to be appointed next year (well, hopefully) to join those operating for years in Queensland and Western Australia, and the Tasmanian Ombudsman to have new responsibilities, this first broad ranging interview by Christopher Graham after six months as Information Commissioner in the UK provides food for thought about the style and approach needed:
"I think (in the past) the Information Commissioner's Office [ICO] has not been alert enough and fierce enough with public authorities that do not comply with their requirements under the Freedom of Information [FOI] Act," he said.

"After five years, public authorities should be able to do better. From now on, we will be a rather tougher partner. We will insist on adequate responses within the time limits. I will be up for issuing what are known as 'information notices' [which compel public authorities to supply information to the ICO or they will have committed a criminal offence]. We have not really done this so far but we will from now on."

On managing privacy obligations the Commissioner has no doubt tougher penalties are part of the compliance answer:

"People guilty of serious, negligent and reckless breaches of people's privacy – basically where information entrusted to organisations, companies or public authorities is made public without authority – should be liable to custodial sentences. Courts ought to have the power to jail offenders for up to two years. At the moment offenders who are caught might get a modest fine which is, frankly, set off as a business expense. But if people knew they could go to prison, they would think twice about committing such an offence that some people now consider as just a prank."

Graham is also about to hop into another issue that has largely gone through to the keeper in Australia:

Mr Graham's latest initiative – announced on Wednesday – is to carry out a massive analysis next year into surveillance – a follow-up to his organisation's report "A Surveillance Society" published in 2006. The Information Commissioner is clearly concerned society's obsession with CCTV cameras has gone too far. "There needs to be some evidence that it is necessary. You can't just say: 'It's a [crime] deterrent so we will have it.' It needs, for example, to go into pubs where there is a history of trouble. But it's unfair for a licensing authority to have CCTV as a matter of routine because law-abiding citizens should be able to have a meal or a drink without being captured on CCTV."

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