[Dave Birch] I was invited to the House of Lords by the Constitution Committee to take part in a seminar on privacy and surveillance, a topic that seems to be attracting a lot of attention at the moment.

House of Lords

It was all under Chatham House rules and I certainly would not put myself beyond the bounds of civilized company by breaking them, but I will say two things. First of all, the best quote of the day came from a lawyer (this doesn’t point the finger, by the way, because pretty much everyone except me was a lawyer) who said that the purpose of the Data Protection Act is “to regulate table manners, not to stop cannibalism”. Excellent (and it was part of an excellent presentation). The second thing is that — and I mean this in a complimentary way — I was surprised by the quality of the questions. You know how when the kids first start to play Dungeons and Dragons and you have to explain the difference between intelligence and wisdom to them? (Actually, you may not, but you get the point.) You know, “a person might have the intelligence to know that smoking is bad for them but not the wisdom to quit” and so forth. Well, some of the questions asked by the committee were definitely wisdom-based (as opposed to the intelligence-based questions in the Commons). It’s not just because of the age of the participants, which I will not remark on, but also because of their varied and accumulated experiences. I feel better for having attended the seminar, and given my modest contributions, I’m sure I got the best of the bargain.

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One thing I didn’t understand, and perhaps a lawyer could clarify for me, came during a discussion that touched on the issue of the Department of Health publishing doctors’ personal details — including religion and sexual orientation — on the Internet. I was curious to know who would be prosecuted under the U.K. Data Protection Act: would it be the Department of Health, or the person responsible, or the contractor, or whoever. I was told by one of the lawyers (again, this doesn’t narrow it down) that no-one was going to be prosecuted because the data breach had simply been “a mistake”.

I tried this defence last time I got a speeding ticket, and I can tell you I doesn’t work, so I need someone to let me know under what principle of the common law “it was a mistake” is now a valid defence: I am desperate to give it another try. I was wondering about this because I was thinking “why didn’t Orange and Littlewoods say that they made a mistake” when had up before the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) the other day.

Note for our foreign readers: The Black Rod’s entrance is the side entrance to the House of Lords, where VUPs (Very Unimportant Persons) such as myself get in.

These opinions are my own (I think) and are presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]

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