European countries are expected today to establish a right for people to learn the logic behind algorithms used by public authorities and private companies that use computers to profile customer behaviour.
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The clarification of data protection rules, to be passed by an annual meeting of Justice Ministers at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, will stop short of requiring profilers to build automatic subject access into their computer models. But it will give people the right to learn about their computer profiles and have them corrected or deleted.
Ministers yesterday agreed the final wording of a text citing traffic data, internet queries, buying habits, lifestyle and behavioural data derived from digital telephones, geolocation data, data from social networks, CCTV, biometric systems and radio frequency identification chips as examples of the sort of data collection they want people to know more about.
Anticipating the "internet of things", the text said such data was collected automatically, linked up and used to sort people into predefined categories under which they might be treated differently, perhaps being offered a higher price than someone with a more favourable profile, or receiving a poorer service.
The Council of Europe was worried such a system of computerised stereotyping might be used prejudicially. "Their use without precautions and specific safeguards could severely damage human dignity by unjustifiably depriving individuals from accessing certain goods or services," said the council.
It said the recommendations should be noted in particular by public authorities, private companies, software suppliers, profile designers, network operators, and computer service providers. Private companies had opposed the rules.
The UK did not send a minister, but a spokesman at the Ministry of Justice said: "The UK abstained during the vote on recommendations because no impact assessment had been carried on the recommendations, which have the potential to affect businesses, the public sector and millions of internet users."
Justice minister Lord McNally had planned to attend the meeting, said the Ministry, but he was called to the House of Lords on other business. The US and Japan also declined to take send honourary observers to the meeting.