Leading Article: Privacy in the global village

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AMNESTY International is worried about proposed European Community legislation on data protection, which is to cover manual as well as electronic records. It fears that if the legislation goes through in its present form Amnesty will be unable to collect or transmit information on political prisoners because their express consent would be required. This would often be impossible or dangerous to obtain. It is also concerned that the legislation would accord too much power to national data protection authorities, which could lead to undue interference. Fund-raising, too, might be hampered by limitations on direct mail.

Amnesty therefore wants human rights organisations to be granted special derogations from certain aspects of the legislation. It argues that a balance has to be drawn between the right to privacy and other fundamental rights, such as the right to life.

Amnesty's objections deserve every sympathy, but they may be too limited and specific. The entire effort to harmonise EC laws on data protection has so far raised as many problems as it has solved. When the European Commission's directive was first published in September 1990, an avalanche of amendments descended on it from the European Parliament. Since then, special interests have had their say, notably the media, which need to collect information on individuals, and direct-marketing firms, which rely on 'data profiling' to target mailshots as accurately as possible. They argue that if they are denied the information needed for precision, the quantity of junk mail - and therefore its cost - will explode.

The Commission has to reconcile a number of conflicting requirements, among them the individual's right to privacy, the needs of a modern European marketplace, including those of banks and credit agencies, and the proper concerns of law enforcement agencies. Initially, it leant in favour of the individual. Under pressure, it is taking more account of other interests. But unanswered questions still multiply. How far is it realistic to seek the prior consent of citizens before processing their data? Should manual data be treated separately? Should not banks hold information on the criminal convictions of their clients? Should not Amnesty International or some other organisation collect information on torturers as well as their victims?

A multitude of derogations may be as open to abuse as the laws themselves. It is better to aim at laws that require as few exceptions as possible. There will never be a wholly satisfactory response to the explosion of information in the modern world. In the global electronic village privacy may become as minimal as it was in the villages of old, where the curtains twitched as strangers passed and everyone knew everyone else's business.

This does not mean that regulation must be abandoned. The scope for the abuse of information has expanded as fast as the information itself. There are still areas of privacy that can and must be protected. But this could mean focusing more on abuse than on control, and more on the citizen's right of access to his or her records than on the issue of consent. Records that are unavailable to the subject are more likely to be misused and more prone to error than those which are open to inspection. The principal threat is from unchecked secret information.