Open records could reveal personal data

The government unit directing the implementation of Cayman’s Freedom of Information Law has recommended that additional steps be taken to ensure the protection of personal data when records are released.

The FOI Unit suggests the creation of what’s known as data protection legislation to give government information managers guidance on which details should be released, and which should be withheld or partially blacked out.

The FOI Law as passed by the Legislative Assembly earlier this year prevents the release of a government record if it would involve the ‘unreasonable disclosure’ of the personal information of any individual, living or dead.

Disclosure is also prevented under the law if it would endanger the health or safety of the person.

But Cayman’s law does not specifically address the rights of individuals to know what information is held about them, nor whether that information has been requested under an open records query. Similar laws do exist in countries which have enacted open records legislation.

For example, the United Kingdom approved its Data Protection Act (1998) years before the UK’s first Freedom of Information legislation took effect in 2005.

According to the Metropolitan Police, the law gives people the right to find out what information is held about them on a computer, and on some paper records. It also requires those who record and use that information to follow certain principles, including being open about how those details are used.

The UK law states that personal information must be fairly and lawfully processed, accurate, relevant but not excessive, and secure among other requirements.

Personal data, as defined by the UK, includes records that express opinions about the individual or which indicate any intentions someone has toward that person.

The UK Data Protection Act allows the person referred to in the information request to be informed about whether their personal data is held or processed. The person can be given a copy of that record, the reasons why the data is held or being processed, and who the records may be given to.

There are exceptions as to when that person can be provided with such information including; when it’s being used in the detection and prevention of crime, a criminal prosecution, or if it involves the issue of national security.

Cayman’s open records law, which is set to take effect in early 2009, will allow the general public access to certain information held by government, statutory authorities and government-controlled companies. Non-profit groups that receive government funding may also be subject to certain requests.

A 16-person steering committee, aided by the FOI Unit, is drawing up regulations for the law, which will define the critical test of public interest. That test will determine whether information can be released in cases where requests are disputed by government.