U.K. information commissioner: data collection trend will be reversed

Published 14 May 2009

Richard Thomas, the outgoing U.K. information commissioner: “If you are looking for a needle in a haystack, it does not make sense to make the haystack bigger”

The outgoing U.K. information commissioner has predicted that government will reverse the trend to collect more personal data. Richard Thomas made the forecast as part of his farewell speech at a conference in London organized by his office. He said it reflects a growing awareness of the need for a balance between security and liberty in collecting and sharing data. “Sometimes public bodies take false comfort in mass data collection,” he said, citing the example of the National Identity Scheme and the ContactPoint children’s database. “It shows too much trust without being aware of the risks and demands of doing so.”

He looked at the situation metaphorically by saying: “If you are looking for a needle in a haystack, it does not make sense to make the haystack bigger.”

Thomas said the tide is now turning against data collection. “I think we will see less instinctive centralization and less government collection of personal data in future years,” he said.

Kable reports that he also said the Freedom of Information Act, which came into full effect at the beginning of 2005, has helped in making the issues of transparency and openness part of the political debate in the United Kingdom. This has been despite a resistance to it within parts of the public sector. He acknowledged during a discussion that some organizations have delayed their responses to information requests for unacceptably long periods.

Thomas, who has been information commissioner since 2002, said he is leaving a “holding strategy” on freedom of information for his successor, Christopher Graham. “It’s an overall framework for discharging the office’s responsibility in this area,” he said. “My successor will change it as he thinks appropriate.”