Speaking at a conference in London organised by the Information Commissioner’s Office, he emphasised the need for a new consultation on the appropriate limits of data sharing.
This follows the government’s retreat from its plans, contained in clause 152 of the Coroners and Justice Bill, to make it easier for public bodies to share people’s personal data.
In response to a question on whether the government plans to revisit the proposal, Straw said: “It was not done with the wrong intent, but the way it came out was unacceptable and the powers proposed were too wide, so we withdrew it.
“We will not just slip something new in; we will have a proper process. There’s no point in a new measure without a proper consultation process.”
In his speech, Straw defended the role of data collection and sharing, citing its potential for fighting crime, supporting healthcare and making services more accessible for the public. But he said there is a need for a public debate on the limits of data sharing.
“We have to agree on whether the benefits of data sharing will be worthwhile in respect to individuals’ privacy and the cost to the taxpayer,” he said.
He also countered some of the criticisms that have been made of the government’s record on data retention and surveillance. He claimed that surveillance by the authorities was more prevalent and more lightly regulated in the 1970s than now, and that the government is seeking an appropriate balance in areas such as the use of CCTV.
There have been vociferous criticisms over the government’s use of the National DNA Database, especially following its recent response to a European Court of Human Rights ruling that it is illegal to retain the profiles of people arrested but then proved innocent. The government has declined to drop the policy but said it will dispose of the profiles after 12 years.
When challenged from the floor of the conference, Straw claimed he would have no objection if details of his DNA were kept on the database for that period.
He also said that the development of technology over the past few years has created new challenges in the areas of data protection and freedom of information.
“The whole of the Freedom of Information Act was predicated on the idea of paper files,” he said. “That technological change alone, and the frightening power of computing that everybody can now see, aligned to the greatly increased demand for information, has placed the information commissioner at the heart of public life. It has made it one of the most demanding positions in the UK.”