The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), UK’s data protection watchdog, today released a 50-page report warning businesses to not forget their obligation to keep data secure and private while taking advantage of their big data technologies.

Steve Wood, the Head of Policy Delivery at the ICO, commented on the report saying,

“[Individuals] are showing they’re concerned about how their data is being used and shared in big data-type scenarios. What we’re saying in this report is that many of the challenges of compliance can be overcome by being open about what you’re doing.”

“Organisations need to think of innovative ways to tell customers what they want to do and what they’re hoping to achieve” Wood continued.“Not only does that go a long way toward complying with the law, but there are benefits from being seen as responsible custodians of data.”

One area the watchdog advises companies on is data anonymity. The ICO describes in the report that personal data is data that relates to an “identifiable living individual.” As such, the ICO suggests that companies must ensure that the data they handle remains anonymised to ensure companies comply with data protection laws; using personal data must be carried out by conducting privacy impact assessments and data anonymity techniques.

It ought to be mentioned, however, that data anonymity is a fiercely debated topic with many commentators suggesting it is not entirely possible. Given the rise of publicly available data, multiple datasets can be matched and combined to give an accurate portrayal of where the data is coming from.

A number of individuals have come out in applaud for the ICO’s new report. Neira Jones, chairman of the global advisory board for the Centre for Strategic Cybercrime & Security Science, told SCMagazine,

“There is still a lot of misconception out there. Big data is currently a major topic of discussion for all industry sectors and it is used in a variety of ways. It is certainly not a surprise that the ICO has produced such a report: it acknowledges that technology evolves rapidly and it needs to keep the pace.

“Only recently, it issued guidelines on anonymisation, and a couple of years back it issued cloud computing guidelines, so Big Data is a logical step. The report offers some very clear definitions for those who are still scratching their heads.”

Two crucial questions, however, still remain: will guidelines like these actually prevent companies from misusing personal data? And does data anonymity really mean anything if companies can still target advertising and other efforts directly at your individual preferences?

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