The UK’s independent authority set up to uphold information rights in the public interest, promoting openness by public bodies and data privacy for individuals.

5 May 2020

A blog by Elizabeth Denham, Information Commissioner.

Last month, as the ICO set out its regulatory approach during the COVID-19 pandemic, I spoke of the importance of regulators applying their authority within the larger social and economic situation.

The document we published that day made clear what organisations can expect of us in the coming months.

My office’s role is to be both an enabler and a protector. We must reflect the requirements and reality of those we regulate, and engage on how data protection can enable innovation that can respond to the pandemic. And the onus is on us to provide that expertise and input at pace.

And we must also protect people’s privacy. We have always been clear of the importance of privacy protections, which are a part of modern life we must not lose.

I want to set out how we have reshaped our priorities for the coming months. My teams have been closely monitoring the current trends, recent complaints or requests for support. We have looked ahead to assess where and how we should narrow our focus on the areas we can have the greatest impact to protect the public interest and support economic growth and innovation:

Protecting the public interest: we are focused on the information rights issues that are likely to cause the most harm or distress to citizens and businesses.

Enabling responsible data sharing: ensuring that data can be shared responsibly and with confidence for the public good, including responding to the risk arising from a failure to share.

Monitoring intrusive and disruptive technology: we are ensuring we protect privacy, while enabling innovation and supporting the economy.

Over the coming months our work is aligning to the following priorities:

1. Protecting our vulnerable citizens

We are responding to the immediate privacy and information rights risks, issues and opportunities presented by COVID-19 in order to support frontline workers and protect the public. We are identifying and taking action against those seeking to use or obtain personal data unlawfully or inappropriately during COVID-19 so that the public and businesses feel confident that the ICO is protecting them at this time when they may be especially vulnerable to financial or other loss

2. Supporting economic growth and digitalisation, including for small businesses

By providing access to clear information, support and practical tools for businesses they are able to grow and offer services safely when sharing personal data or developing AI technology, in ways which inspire public trust and confidence and comply with the law.

3. Shaping proportionate surveillance

We are maintaining a high level of awareness and insight of the medium term privacy and information rights impact of COVID-19, which include contact tracing, testing and other emerging surveillance issues. 

4. Enabling good practice in AI

We are prepared and shaping the ongoing development and use of AI in response to COVID-19, to ensure privacy considerations are engineered into the use of AI across the digital economy, from consumer products to surveillance applications.

5. Enabling transparency

We are supporting organisations to be transparent about decisions taken that affect citizens, including how personal data is used, in order to improve public confidence about and civil participation in those decisions.

6. Maintaining business continuity: developing new ways of working in readiness for recovery

We are effectively managing and coordinating activity during the pandemic, supporting staff and managing our own response and recovery so that our infrastructure, planning, resources and people are in place to deliver the right work, at the right time, throughout the pandemic period and we are prepared for the future.

While this means some ICO projects are being paused, we will still be maintaining our statutory functions, including dealing with complaints, and investigating data breach reports, as we set out previously.

And we’ll be making decisions about how quickly, and when, those projects will resume when the post-pandemic economic landscape becomes clearer over the coming months.

Infographic: Priorities during COVID-19 and beyond - 2020-21

The ICO has reshaped its priorities for the coming months. We have considered the current landscape and looked ahead to assess where and how we should narrow our focus on the areas we can have the greatest impact to protect the public interest and support economic growth and innovation.

Elizabeth Denham was appointed UK Information Commissioner on 15 July 2016 and her term ended on 30 November 2021.