CSA reveals too much, data watchdog says

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THE UK's computer data watchdog yesterday questioned the right of the Child Support Agency to pass detailed information on incomes between parents during maintenance assessments.

Eric Howe, the Data Protection Registrar, said complaints over the CSA made up the bulk of those he had received over public sector organisations. Of the 200 complaints over the agency, most were from 'absent' parents or their new partners.

Mr Howe found the CSA was routinely disclosing more detailed financial information than required by law. He said this included details of a new partner's income, used in some circumstances to calculate maintenance payments.

'Not unnaturally, many new partners of those being assessed were very aggrieved at having personal financial information given to a third party with whom they had no direct relationship,' Mr Howe said in his tenth annual report, published yesterday.

Earlier complaints from Mr Howe have forced the CSA to alter some of its systems. But the agency still argues it has a legal duty to pass on detailed information as a matter of 'natural justice'. Mr Howe is not convinced, and is seeking his own legal advice.

Other complaints about the agency concerned disclosure of information by employers, misidentification of individuals and misleading references to confidentiality in CSA literature.

Mr Howe also called for a code of practice to govern the digitised images produced by city centre surveillance cameras, balancing the benefit of cutting crime against concern for privacy - cameras should not be directed into people's homes, he suggested.

'If we want to go in this direction, there should be certain rules governing their use,' Mr Howe said.

Almost 80 per cent of complaints last year concerned the private sector, mostly over use of personal data by the finance industry. Mr Howe is concerned that banks, building societies and other financial organisations pass confidential information on customer's accounts between themselves via credit reference agencies.

He understood that people who fail to repay loans might expect this sort of treatment, but said people who service debts properly should not have their confidentiality jeopardised in this way.

He also warned against several developments which he believes could herald a national identity scheme 'by stealth'. The list included the US-style introduction of photographs on driving licences, social security 'swipe cards' and the 'sideways slip' that has led to the use of National Insurance numbers on tax forms and the possibility of wider use of NHS numbers.

He is increasingly frustrated over protection of data on health records. He said he was 'disappointed' that the Department of Health had still not produced a code of practice on this, despite promising to do so 'for a number of years'. The British Medical Association has indicated it will wait no longer and intends to draw up its own code.

Tenth Report of the Data Protection Registrar, June 1994. HMSO; pounds 12.25.