ICO to protect the vulnerable

John Edwards sets out his three-year agenda

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The Information Commissioner John Edwards says he is committed to ensuring the information rights of vulnerable people and improving responses to freedom of information requests.

Children’s privacy, artificial intelligence-driven discrimination and predatory marketing calls are all inhis sights.

Impact on lives

Edwards, the former New Zealand regulator who became Information Commissioner at the start of the year, set out his plans in ICO25, a three year plan setting out the regulator’s approach and priorities.

“My office will focus our resources where we see data protection issues are disproportionately affecting already vulnerable or disadvantaged groups,”said Edwards.

“The impact that we can have on people’s lives is the measure of our success. This is what modern data protection looks like, and itis what modern regulation looks like.”

Edwards said his office would consider the impact the use of AI in job recruitment could be having on neurodiverse people or ethnic minorities, who weren’t part of the testing of the software. AI is widely used to screenjob applicants.

Edwards’ emphasis was immediately welcomed by TellMAMA, a charity combating Islamophobia.

The use of algorithms in making decisions on benefit claims and other welfare decisions will also come under scrutiny.

Councils have recently slowed down their adoption of such systems, sometimes used to detect fraudulent claims, over concerns that they are implemented without consultation and are prone to bias and other negative effects.

The ICO has already expressed concern that harms can occur both intentionally and inadvertently from theuse of algorithms and that having a “human in the loop” is not a foolproof safeguard against them.

Freedom of information

Edwards said awareness of the regulator’s work in the UK is “far lower than the awareness I was used to in Asia Pacific” and called on civil society, charities and NGOs to make clear to his office where it could make a difference on behalf of the vulnerable people they represent.

That also includes rape victims who suffer again when police demand they hand over their phones as evidence before they are willing to consider prosecutions.*

“My concern with that lower awareness is that people cannot assert rights they don’t know they have. That must change,” he said.

Edwards also underlined his belief that freedom of information is an essential part of a functioning democracy. But he said limited funding and an increase in FOI cases brought to him meant a change of approach. There were 6,361 complaints to the ICO over FOI in the year to 30 April 2022, usually about late responses or incomplete disclosures of information.

That might mean prioritising cases where there was a higher public interest than others.

“That might be controversial to some, and brings some risks,” said Edward. “It will need clear, published criteria against which we make those decisions and are accountable for them.

“I’ll be asking my staff to explicitly adopt a dispute resolution stance in more cases, bringing holder and requester together to get the latter the information they need in a way that does not cause the problems the former is trying to avoid.

“In this fast-paced digital environment, information delayed is information denied. We’re going to need to be open with stakeholders about the trade offs necessary to deliver timely access.

“I want us to support public authorities to make information available. Iwant us to be clearer onwhen and how we will enforce where standardsare not met. But most of all I want the FOI community – requesters, public authorities, civil society – to be part ofthe discussion on how we fix a system that clearly needs fixing.”

Photo: Howard Barlow

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