Small firms still ignorant of data laws

Many small businesses are still ignorant of their obligations under the Data Protection Act, despite a large rise in the number...

Many small businesses are still ignorant of their obligations under the Data Protection Act, despite a large rise in the number of complaints made against firms under the Act.

Although awareness is increasing, only 56% of small businesses claim to understand their data protection obligations, compared to 83% of large firms, according to figures due to be released by the Office of the Information Commissioner today.

The number of data protection-related complaints filed by the public has risen from 4,300 in 1999-2000 to 12,500 in 2002-2003, Elizabeth France will reveal in her last annual report before stepping down from her role as information commissioner.

"The message is not that businesses are getting worse at data protection but that the public is much more aware that its information is being processed, much more aware of the risks to them if it goes wrong, and much readier to use their rights," she told Computer Weekly.

France is working with the Department of Trade & Industry's Small Business Service to develop data protection guidelines for small businesses that will explain their obligations under the Act more clearly.

But France made it clear that she has no plans to make any substantial changes to her controversial code of practice on monitoring employees at work, which has attracted criticism from employers because of its length and complexity.

"The point we keep making and repeat, is that this is not new regulation, this is not a new burden," she said. "Even if I took the code away it would not alter our legal obligations."

France said her staff were keeping a careful watch on plans for additional data legislation to make sure it contains privacy safeguards and that the use of data is limited in its scope before any new laws hit the statute books. However, she said some government departments are better than others at telling her their plans.

"I think the Government recognises that it is walking a tightrope. More of us are aware of our rights and are ready to use them. And I hope we have played our part in educating that. For instance, you saw the late but nevertheless vociferous outcry when the Government tried to bring in orders under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act," she said.

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