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Limits of data privacy

Data privacy has become a buzzword these days.

Whenever personal information about a person is requested in the course of private or government transactions, the party to whom the request is made and who has access to such information often treads carefully to make sure he or she does not run afoul with the Data Privacy Act.

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Aimed at safeguarding the people’s right to privacy, the law imposes stiff penalties on violation of that right.

Personal information refers to “any information whether recorded in a material form or not from which the identity of an individual is apparent or can be reasonably and directly ascertained by the entity holding the information, or when put together with other information would directly and certainly identify an individual.”

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The reluctance to make personal information available to third parties is more acute in government offices because of fear of government employees of becoming the subject of a complaint in the Office of the Ombudsman.

The apprehension sometimes reaches paranoia level if the subject of the request is a known public personality or somebody who appears to be influential to the powers-that-be.

Because of the (mistaken) impression that the law covers all kinds of personal information without distinction, the refusal to provide information for reasons of “data privacy” often goes unchallenged.

This should not be the case because the law, taking into consideration the similarly important right of the people to be informed, provides for instances when confidentiality cannot be invoked by the party that collects or processes personal information.

At the top of the list is information about a person who is or was an officer or employee of the government in relation to his or her position or functions. This includes, among others, his or her classification, salary range and responsibilities.

If that person participated in the preparation of any document in the course of his or her employment in the government, that fact has to be disclosed if asked about it.

The same treatment shall be given to a private individual who is performing or has performed a service contract under a government office, but only in so far as it relates to such service and that includes the terms and conditions of the service.

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This arrangement is fair because a private person who enters into a service contract with the government, and is paid taxpayers’ money in the process, puts himself or herself at the same level as a government employee.

Also exempt from confidentiality is information about a financial benefit given to or received by a person at the discretion of a government office, such as the grant of a license or permit.

The recipient’s identity and exact nature of the benefits granted cannot be kept under wraps when a third party inquires about them and no reason has to be given for the request.

The cloak of privacy is likewise lifted for personal information processed for journalistic, artistic or literary purposes when made to uphold the freedoms of speech, of expression and of the press.

There is caveat though in this exemption: It is subject to the rules and regulations that apply to the exercise of those freedoms, e.g., libel and copyright laws.

In the same token, personal information that will be used or processed for research purposes that are intended for a public benefit are not covered by the rules on data privacy.

As in the case of the freedoms cited above, the use of the information is subject to the requirements of applicable laws and corresponding ethical standards.

Rounding up the list of information exempt from the coverage of the law is information necessary to carry out the functions of public authority, in particular in relation to law enforcement or performance of regulatory functions.

To require otherwise would impair the ability of government to protect and promote the interests of the public.

For comments, please send your email to [email protected]

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