The Data Protection Act and its breaches have been a concern of the ICO for many years. The problem of private investigators having the means and the contacts to obtain information in a way that clearly breaches the Act was recognised by the ICO many years before the more recent revelations that led us to the Leveson Enquiry.
There is no doubt that there could have been prosecutions for this type of conduct in the past. The likelihood is that the ICO would have been under-resourced and the need for expensive tech input might have been seen as too costly for what might have been incidences that affected individuals where publicity would not have arisen in any event. The ICO clearly had to cope in a changing world and may have relied on education, disruption and the threat that arose with the occasional high publicity case. Unfortunately those cases were at the easy end of the spectrum as they relied upon people who made errors rather than went out and deliberately targeted individuals for profit.
The ability to obtain information illegally has probably increased significantly with the proliferation of technology where the security surrounding the technology has not kept pace with the use made of it. In many ways the problem may lie with the tech companies who sell this equipment with no apparent regard to helping their customers to keep their information safe. It may also be the case that Government has tried to encourage this unsafe technology in order that they may access it all more easily – but only to ensure our safety, they would say. Perhaps encourage is too strong a word but turning a blind eye to the issues might seen to be the same thing.
Alongside the development of the unsafe tech we see the amazing proliferation of social media. An industry that sought to encourage people to make available to the world their personal details, thoughts and data and seems to have succeeded in convincing the public that it is a good thing to do so. This was not some altruistic development as these are companies who wished to make billions for its founders. All of this has added to the culture where people do not take data protection as seriously as they ought.
When it comes to investigating and prosecuting people now, there is the danger that professionals will be seen as a soft target and that celebs will be seen as a way of showing people how seriously this will be taken and how dangerous it is to enter into this world. The question however must be whether the Data Protection Act is still fit for purpose and whether the failure to educate the general public is where the Act has really failed its good intentions.
A history of prosecuting people for unintentional breaches whilst leaving the ‘criminal’ breaches to proliferate is not way to promote Data Protection as serious matter it undoubtedly is.
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