Should ICO get spot check powers over businesses?

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The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) should have the power to search private businesses, according to a new government report.

Looking at data protection changes in the controversial Justice and Coroners Bill, the Joint Committee on Human Rights has said boosting the ICO's ability to search businesses and take action against them would be a "human rights enhancing measure".

The report called for the Information Commissioner to be able to assess private businesses as well as public ones, essentially conducting spot checks. It also said the ICO should have the power to "seek sanctions" against public bodies which refused to comply with its notices exactly what those sanctions would entail wasn't outlined.

The report said such measures would help increase data protection of individuals. "We consider that these additional powers for the Information Commissioner would be a human rights enhancing measure," it stated.

Information commissioner Richard Thomas told the report's authors that his office should be able to serve an assessment notice on any data controller public or private and there must be "meaningful sanctions" for ignoring a notice.

He added: "We received welcome new powers in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 to levy fines on data controllers for deliberately or recklessly breaching the data protection principles. However it is important that the Government brings these powers into force as soon as possible."

The Confederation for British Industry (CBI) disagreed with the proposed spot checks of private businesses data practices, saying the current system works "perfectly well".

"At the present time, if the Information Commissioner suspects a business is breaching the data protection rules, he can apply for a warrant [to search the business]", a CBI spokesperson told IT PRO.

Removing the requirement to have just cause to search would mean the ICO could assess a business that had no data protection problems. "We didn't think it was proportionate," the spokesperson added. "The current system works perfectly well."

The report also slammed the information sharing aspect of the bill, which would give the government the power to share data across public bodies. Justice Secretary Jack Straw has already publicly backed down from that proposal after a public uproar.