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NZ privacy lead John Edwards named new information commissioner

DCMS has named John Edwards, currently New Zealand privacy commissioner, to succeed Elizabeth Denham as UK information commissioner

New Zealand’s serving privacy commissioner John Edwards has been selected by the UK government as the preferred candidate to succeed Elizabeth Denham as information commissioner when she steps down from the post in October 2021, after her term in office was extended.

Edwards, who is currently serving out his second five-year term in New Zealand, was appointed to his post in 2014, and recently oversaw the introduction of the country’s 2020 Privacy Act. He was also chairman of the Global Privacy Assembly – previously the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners – from 2014 to 2017.

Before that, he was a specialist in information law, with a 20-year practice in Wellington, and has also held a number of other independent statutory appointments, including as watchdog for people in compulsory mental healthcare, and intellectual disability services.

Digital secretary Oliver Dowden said it was important to have leadership in place at the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to enable the UK to pursue “a new era” of data-driven growth and innovation now that the country has fully exited the European Union (EU).

“John Edwards’ vast experience makes him the ideal candidate to ensure data is used responsibly to achieve those goals,” said Dowden.

Edwards said: “It is a great honour and responsibility to be considered for appointment to this key role as a watchdog for the information rights of the people of the UK.

“There is a great opportunity to build on the wonderful work already done and I look forward to the challenge of steering the organisation and the British economy into a position of international leadership in the safe and trusted use of data for the benefit of all.”

Read more about the ICO’s work

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  • Information Commissioner’s Office to consult on its draft international data transfer agreement and guidance, which will replace standard contractual clauses to protect personal data during overseas transfers.
  • Disgraced former health secretary Matt Hancock faces an investigation by the UK’s data protection watchdog over his use of private email to conduct government business.

Under the Data Protection Act, Edwards is officially appointed by the Queen by Letters Patent, on the basis of “fair and open” competition and on ministerial recommendation – those ministers having been assisted in their decision by an Advisory Assessment Panel. However, before formally taking up the post, Edwards will also have to appear before the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee in early September.

Edwards becomes the sixth person to hold the post of information commissioner – although, on its creation in 1984, the role was known as data protection commissioner – and the second non-Brit in the role, following Denham, who hails from Canada.

He takes on the challenge at a critical juncture in the ICO’s history, as the digitisation of the UK’s daily life brings with it vastly increased volumes of sensitive data, and increased risk to it.

Alongside that, the role of information commissioner and the work of the ICO has lately become highly visible, with Denham called upon to arbitrate on high-profile data protection failures – such as breaches at British Airways and Marriott which resulted in substantial fines.

She also steered through the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the impact of Brexit and, more recently, the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw the ICO dramatically scale back its work.

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