Don't mention the flaws

February 21, 2013

Thank you, Times Higher Education, for updating readers about European Commission proposals “on the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data and on the free movement of such data”.

However, David Erdos’ article (“Mustn’t ask, mustn’t tell”, Opinion, 14 February) is somewhat obscured by its use of hypothetical examples, so I have reproduced the key sections below. The main changes are within Article 83 (although readers keen on complex lists will find some in Article 86), detailed below.

Processing for historical, statistical and scientific research purposes

1. Within the limits of this Regulation, personal data may be processed for historical, statistical or scientific research purposes only if:

(a) these purposes cannot be otherwise fulfilled by processing data which does not permit or not any longer permit the identification of the data subject;

(b) data enabling the attribution of information to an identified or identifiable data subject is kept separately from the other information as long as these purposes can be fulfilled in this manner.

2. Bodies conducting historical, statistical or scientific research may publish or otherwise publicly disclose personal data only if:

(a) the data subject has given consent, subject to the conditions laid down in Article 7;

(b) the publication of personal data is necessary to present research findings or to facilitate research insofar as the interests or the fundamental rights or freedoms of the data subject do not override these interests; or

(c) the data subject has made the data public.

As a journal editor, I am most concerned about section 2(b). Health policy is often linked to particular ministers of the Crown (“identifiable” even if not named) whose “interests” are being re-elected in future. One minister heatedly said to me that he’d had enough of my “research” and wanted only “good news stories”: how can I promise henceforth never to publish “bad news” research?

Woody Caan
Member, Academy of Social Sciences
Editor, Journal of Public Mental Health
Professorial fellow, Royal Society for Public Health

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