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Rights of privacy 'in danger of erosion'

INDIVIDUAL rights of privacy are in grave danger of being eroded because of rapid growth in the volume of personal information held on computers and mounting pressure for the wider use of public information files, Eric Howe, the Data Protection Registrar, said yesterday.

Mr Howe, who was speaking after the publication of his annual report to Parliament, pointed to the exchange of electronic data by police and customs officers across Europe, a proposal for a national DNA database of all British men and the canvassing of views on creating a population register.

'Without adequate protection, there seems to me to be a grave danger that individual privacy will simply be whittled away in the collection and processing of information,' he said.

Mr Howe said it was important that the stringent safeguards of personal privacy aimed at in a European Community draft directive on data protection, likely to come into force at the end of next year, were not watered down.

He expressed concern that lobbying in Europe by the direct marketing industry might lead to concessions which would weaken the position of British citizens under the Data Protection Act, particularly with regard to informing individuals about the intended use of their personal details.

However, Mr Howe agreed that clarification was needed of proposals in the directive which human rights organisations and investigative journalists believe would obstruct their work, requiring them to seek written permission from people before compiling dossiers on them.

'My reading of the directive is that express permission to process data would not need to be sought in such circumstances, unless the individuals concerned could challenge whether a legitimate interest was being pursued,' he said.

Addressing areas of concern within this country, Mr Howe called for a clear policy on data matching - the collating of information from different sources to build up personal profiles. The practice was already on the increase, he said.

Reservations are expressed in the report about the use and disclosure of confidential medical records. It says that changes to the National Health Service have created new demands for access to such data and calls for a code of practice from the Department of Health.