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Over 40 percent of European organisations stop citizens accessing their data

Antony Savvas | June 25, 2014
An international study shows that over 40 percent of organisations obstruct access to people's own data.

An international study shows that over 40 percent of organisations obstruct access to people's own data.

A European Union study, led by the University of Sheffield, investigated 327 organisations in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Slovakia, Spain and the UK.

The research found "serial malpractice and obfuscation" on the part of public and private sector organisations when citizens sought clarification of what organisations know about them.

The study forms part of the IRISS (Increasing Resilience in Surveillance Societies) project, funded by the European Union. It documents the actual experience citizens have when trying to use the law to access their data.

Right to know

European and national laws give citizens the right to know how their personal data is used, shared and processed by private and public sector organisations. The study, encompassing citizen interactions with 327 sites, found that what should have been a straightforward process was "complex, confusing, frustrating and, in the end, largely unsuccessful".

The research sites encompassed health, transport, employment, education, finance, leisure, communication, consumerism, civic engagement, and security and criminal justice.

Professor Clive Norris, a specialist in the sociology of surveillance and social control from the University of Sheffield, said: "We part with our personal data on a daily basis, creating vast and invisible reservoirs of actionable personal information. We do this actively and passively, and our experience of the world is reshaped in ways that we don't appreciate."

He said: "We are selectively marketed to, our locations are tracked by CCTV and automated licence plate recognition systems and our online behaviour is monitored, analysed, stored and used. The challenge for all of us is that our information is often kept from us, despite the law and despite our best efforts to access it."

The research found that the spirit of the European Data Protection Directive has "frequently been undermined" as it has been transposed into national legal frameworks, and then "further undermined" by evolving national case law.

The right of access is generally exercised by submitting an access request to a nominated data controller but, before this can begin, the data controller must be located.

The research across 327 sites found that in a significant minority (20 percent) of cases, it was simply not possible to locate a data controller.

Where data controllers could be located, the quality of information concerning the process of making an access request varied enormously. In the best cases, information was thorough and followed legislative guidelines closely, providing citizens with an unambiguous pathway to exercise their right of access. In the worst cases information was very basic, often failing to explain how to make an access request or indeed what an access request actually is, says the study.


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