Ministers should explore setting up an online registry to list all the vast personal data held about individuals by private companies, a parliamentary committee has said.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights has raised the issue in its new Right to Privacy report, raising the alarm about an online “wild west” where privacy policies are too complicated for people to understand and information is compiled without their knowledge.
The report concludes: “The evidence we heard suggests that people's data is routinely being shared and used without their consent, which clearly infringes on their right to privacy.
“It should be made much simpler for individuals to see what data has been shared about them, and with whom, and to prevent some or all of their data being shared.
“The Government should explore the practicality and usefulness of creating a single online registry that would allow people to see, in real time, all the companies that hold personal data on them and what data they hold.”
Harriet Harman, the committee’s chair (pictured), said that people “cannot be expected to know whether their data is being used appropriately and what risks this poses to their right to privacy”.
“Instead there should be adequate regulation in place to ensure that everyone's privacy is protected online,” she said.
“It should be simple to know what data is shared about individuals and it must be equally easy to correct or delete data held about us as it was to us to sign up to the service in the first place.”
The report describes the consent model which relies on people knowing about the risks associated with using web based services as broken. Too often, the use of a service or website is conditional on consent being given yet people cannot find out what they have consented to, it concludes.
The committee says it is also “completely inappropriate” to use consent when processing the data of children as young as 13, as allowed under the current legal framework.
It warns of “deeply troubling” evidence of some companies using personal data to ensure that only people of a certain age or race see a particular job opportunity or housing advertisement. It points to the possibility of eye tracking software making assumptions about people's sexual habits, mental state and whether they are drunk or on drugs.
Another warning is that, without regulation, society is relying on whistle blowers or work by investigative journalists to protect against privacy breaches or discrimination.
The Information Commissioner’s Office was among witnesses to raise concerns about data aggregation allowing very detailed profiles of individuals to be built up without their knowledge.
Pointing to data from sources such as GPS systems in cars and on phones, online search histories, and social media communications, it warned: “Combined they paint a sophisticated picture of an individual data subject.
Image by Chris McAndrew, CC BY 3.0