Over 40 percent of European organisations stop citizens accessing their data

Businesses are worse than government at opening up data following a valid request

An international study shows that over 40 percent of organisations obstruct access to people's own data.

A European Union study, led by the University of Sheffield, investigated 327 organisations in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Slovakia, Spain and the UK.

The research found "serial malpractice and obfuscation" on the part of public and private sector organisations when citizens sought clarification of what organisations know about them.

The study forms part of the IRISS (Increasing Resilience in Surveillance Societies) project, funded by the European Union. It documents the actual experience citizens have when trying to use the law to access their data.

Right to know

European and national laws give citizens the right to know how their personal data is used, shared and processed by private and public sector organisations. The study, encompassing citizen interactions with 327 sites, found that what should have been a straightforward process was "complex, confusing, frustrating and, in the end, largely unsuccessful".

The research sites encompassed health, transport, employment, education, finance, leisure, communication, consumerism, civic engagement, and security and criminal justice.

Professor Clive Norris, a specialist in the sociology of surveillance and social control from the University of Sheffield, said: "We part with our personal data on a daily basis, creating vast and invisible reservoirs of actionable personal information. We do this actively and passively, and our experience of the world is reshaped in ways that we don't appreciate."

He said: "We are selectively marketed to, our locations are tracked by CCTV and automated licence plate recognition systems and our online behaviour is monitored, analysed, stored and used. The challenge for all of us is that our information is often kept from us, despite the law and despite our best efforts to access it."

The research found that the spirit of the European Data Protection Directive has "frequently been undermined" as it has been transposed into national legal frameworks, and then "further undermined" by evolving national case law.

The right of access is generally exercised by submitting an access request to a nominated data controller but, before this can begin, the data controller must be located.

The research across 327 sites found that in a significant minority (20 percent) of cases, it was simply not possible to locate a data controller.

Where data controllers could be located, the quality of information concerning the process of making an access request varied enormously. In the best cases, information was thorough and followed legislative guidelines closely, providing citizens with an unambiguous pathway to exercise their right of access. In the worst cases information was very basic, often failing to explain how to make an access request or indeed what an access request actually is, says the study.

The most reliable and efficient way of locating data controllers turned out to be online. In nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of all cases, online searching provided the relevant contact details, and this was achieved in less than five minutes over half (61 percent) of the time.

Attempts to locate data controllers using alternative methods generally did not fare well. In the majority of cases, when contacting organisations by telephone, members of staff lacked knowledge concerning subject access requests. As a result, answers were "often incorrect, confusing and contradictory", say the researchers.

When it was possible to locate the data controller via telephone, this took over six minutes, and on premium rate lines in over half (54 percent) of all cases. Even then, the information provided via telephone was rated as "good" in only 34 percent of cases.


In the case of CCTV data, where researchers attended sites in person, nearly one in five sites (18 percent) did not display any CCTV signage. Where signage was present, in more than four in 10 cases (43 percent) it was rated as "poor" in terms of visibility and content. Only one third (32.5 percent) of CCTV signage named the CCTV system operator or data controller.

When it was possible to locate the CCTV data controller, the process of submitting an access request was often "problematic" with data controllers "employing a range of discourses of denial" which "restrict or completely deny data subjects the ability to exercise their informational rights".

Access requests were sent for a range of data, including paper, digital and CCTV records. Requests made three demands of data controllers, including disclosure of personal data, disclosure of third parties with whom data had been shared, and disclosure of whether (and if so how) data had been subject to automated decision making processes.

The research found that obtaining a satisfactory response concerning all aspects of the requests was a relatively rare occurrence. Four out of ten requests (43 percent) did not result in personal data being disclosed or data subjects receiving a legitimate reason for the failure to disclose their personal data.

In over half of all cases (56 percent), no adequate or legally compliant response was received concerning third party data sharing.

In over two-thirds of cases (71 percent) automated decision making processes were either not addressed or not addressed in a legally compliant manner.

Public sector v private sector responses to data access requests

There were noted variations in how different types of organisations responded to requests. In general, public sector organisations performed less badly than those in the private sector, with 43 percent engaging in restrictive practices compared with 62 percent in the private sector.

Requests for CCTV footage were "particularly problematic", with seven out of 10 requests for CCTV footage being met by "restrictive practices" from data controllers or their representative.

While loyalty card scheme operators were "generally facilitative" in disclosing personal data (86 percent of cases), they did not perform as strongly in providing information about automated decision making processes (only 50 percent of cases).

Requests made to banks did not yield much information about third party data sharing, with only 30 percent of responses disclosing this.

Norris said: "In our view there is an urgent requirement for policy-makers to address the failure of law at the European level and its implementation into national law.

"Organisations must ensure that they conform to the law. In particular, organisations need to make it clear who is responsible for dealing with requests from citizens, and they need to train their staff so they are aware of their responsibilities under law. They also need to implement clear and unambiguous procedures to facilitate citizens making access requests."

The Increasing Resilience in Surveillance Societies (IRISS) project is led by the Institute for the Sociology of Law and Criminology in Austria.

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