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'Reports of Thursday's ruling in the House of Lords case, R v Brown, may have given the impression that accessing i...
'Reports of Thursday's ruling in the House of Lords case, R v Brown, may have given the impression that accessing information from a computer screen is not covered by the Data Protection Act,' said the Data Protection Registrar, Elizabeth France.

She continued :'The Lords clearly ruled that processing data in this way is covered by the act and where it is carried out improperly, I can take enforcement action against the data user against which appeals can be brought to the Data Protection Tribunal.

'However, an individual employee cannot now be prosecuted under the Data Protection Act for 'browsing' personal data, although it may be possible to prosecute under the Computer Misuse Act 1990. Employees accessing a database for their own use or amusement causes concern about security, integrity and confidentiality of personal information.'

The case concerned a former police constable who, on two occasions, had asked the operator of the police computer to give him the name of the owner of particular vehicles for which he supplied the index numbers. He wanted the information to help in a debt collection business in which he was concerned and not as part of his duties as a police officer.

The officer was charged with 'using' personal data contrary to the Data Protection Act. He was found guilty and appealed on the grounds that reading information off the screen could not amount to a 'use of data'. That view has now been upheld by the House of Lords. At the same time, the Lords have made clear that if the officer had taken any action based on the information he had acquired, it would have been covered by the act.

Mrs France concluded: 'I wholeheartedly welcome the decision of the House of Lords that the words 'use' and 'disclosure' in the Data Protection Act should be given their 'natural and ordinary meaning.

It was most important to ensure that the act dealt with ordinary everyday activities and not with the wordings hidden inside computers. Especially pleasing were the remarks recognising that the Data Protection Act flows from the 1981 Council of Europe Convention and exists to protect personal privacy'.

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