Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by the Information Commissioner's Office

  1.  The Information Commissioner welcomes the inquiry by the Science and Technology Committee into personal Internet security. The Commissioner shares the concern that Lord Broers expresses. Whilst we are increasingly doing more and more online all too many of us do not fully appreciate the risks. The Commissioner is not submitting detailed evidence on the nature of the risks, and appropriate counter measures, because there are others better placed to provide authoritative evidence on these matters.

  2.  The problems of educating citizens regarding the risks are highlighted by the dangers of using file-sharing software. This can mean that information and documents held on a computer can be accessed remotely. The practical dangers are all too obvious. Someone may use their home computer to prepare some documents for work purposes, unaware that someone else in the household has downloaded file-sharing software. This can put sensitive information and documents at risk. Whilst employees may have been warned about the dangers of using a home computer for work purposes, the fact that many of us do not have a full appreciation of the nature and extent of the potential risks can lead even those who are normally cautious to put sensitive information at risk. Even if a home computer is only used for domestic purposes, if file-sharing software is installed this can result in sensitive private information being put at risk.

  3.  However, the dangers of file-sharing software have been known about for some years. For example, in November 2003 The Guardian published a detailed article on the use of this software, particularly for sharing images of the sexual abuse of children. Moreover, those providing popular file-sharing software, such as LimeWire and Kazaa do warn users of the risks and of the need to be careful in selecting which folders they are happy to share. Nevertheless, many of those who install this software do not take the necessary precautions. This raises the question of whether the mechanisms for ensuring safe use are simple enough for those who are not particularly IT literate to understand and use.

  4.  The Commissioner believes, therefore, that there is a real need to ensure that all of us who use computers are aware of the risks and the steps we can take to minimise those risks. The task of education is a shared one, schools, parliament, government, employers, regulators and especially industry, all have a part to play. There is a risk that, regardless of concerted efforts to educate, there will be those who believe that such matters as Internet security are just too technical for them. The Commissioner considers, therefore, that great emphasis should be placed on ensuring that privacy and security-friendly use of the internet is as straightforward as possible. This may well require industry to reconsider whether their products are as easy to use safely as they could be and whether more can be done to design in a safety first approach.

24 October 2006

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