UK’s data privacy watchdog sets out three-year plan to deal with ‘increasing demand and shrinking resources’

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is today to set out a three-year plan about how it will uphold data protection laws amid “increasing demand and shrinking resources”.

Part of this will be allowed under the UK’s new data protection regime, which will allow the ICO to focus on the incidents that cause the most harm – such as nuisance callers defrauding elderly victims with sham insurance sales.

Among the watchdog’s priority topics will be looking at the impact of these predatory marketing calls, alongside the use of algorithms within the Department of Work and Pensions’ benefits system to profile potential fraud, and the use of artificial intelligence in recruitment that could negatively impact ethnic minorities.

Read more: ‘Despicable’ companies fined for ‘predatory’ and ‘coercive’ calls to sell unnecessary insurance to elderly

Crucially – amid an energy-driven cost of living crisis, with the rate of inflation at a 40-year high – the ICO aims to save businesses at least £100m through a range of measures, including delivering as much compliance training and help as it can from the centre, rather than forcing companies to pay out for it themselves.

Speaking to Sky News before his speech, Information Commissioner John Edwards recognised that businesses are under strain: “Any cost that is non-productive is a deadweight loss for them in a really tight environment.

“If a small business is told by a consultant, ‘Look, you’ve got to send a data protection officer on a training course and it’s £300…’ you know, if I can say that we put all our training online for free – we are spending once at the centre so 10,000 of those £300 businesses don’t have to – that’s gonna save an enormous amount.”

Freedom of Information Act ‘of fundamental importance’ to democracy

The ICO said it will also aim to reduce fines on public sector bodies such as the Department for Health, which recently received a formal reprimand as the watchdog called for a review into the way government officials use private messaging channels.

That call for a review was prompted by concerns about the impact on official recordkeeping and on the ability of the public to pursue information the government might want to keep secret under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.

“There are few regulators who can say their work is of fundamental importance to the democracy on which society exists. But that is the value of the Freedom of Information Act,” Mr Edwards will say in his speech.

“My role is to ensure the administration of that law is fit for the modern world,” he will say.

Speaking to Sky News, Mr Edwards said that after six months in the job: “It seems to me pretty clear that the FOI system is not working as was expected when the legislation was drafted.”

Rather than making an immediate decision, he said he wants to begin a conversation about “some of the trade-offs” and to have a more public conversation about how the regulator intervenes in FOI disputes.

“I’m open to considering whether we pull some things out of the queue and say, ‘Look, this is in the public interest, we should expedite this one’,” he added.

He acknowledged that approach could be controversial. The ICO could be accused of picking winners or of political partisanship if it expedited a case that might be critical of the government or another body.

“So I think if we are to do that, it’s important that we set out some pretty clear and objective criteria against which we’ll make those decisions and offer ourselves open to be accountable for those decisions.”

Mr Edwards asked: “Should we be blind as to who the requester is, or should we say that somebody who’s reporting for a national newspaper is acting on behalf of a large number of people and has a sort of agency interest?”

The ICO receives thousands of complaints about responses under the FOI Act every year, each of which requires a caseworker to investigate them.

With the regulator’s funding relatively down, Mr Edwards said: “We can’t keep doing the same thing and expecting things to be different. We’ve got to change the way we do things.”

In some cases this might mean brokering resolutions, he suggested, although sometimes that might not be possible if the difficult-to-reach information includes the crucial public interest details.

Last year the government denied setting up a “Clearing House” unit to profile journalists and undermine FOI requests, following a letter from newspaper editors demanding action.

Numerous journalists, including at openDemocracy and The Times, have discovered that special advisers have interfered in the statutory process which should have seen information released to them.

In response to this criticism, the Cabinet Office has now established an internal investigation into the practice, however it has been criticised for refusing to confirm that the final report of that investigation will be published, contrary to the recommendations from a parliamentary committee and Mr Edwards.

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