OPINION29 September 2022

Data protection is an enabler, not a blocker, of good quality research

GDPR Opinion Privacy UK

Data protection should offer confidence to researchers and research participants, says Ian Hulme, as the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) publishes guidance on research provisions.

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When we launched the consultation on our research provisions guidance in February, I wrote that the ICO understands the value and importance of research. That still rings true – which is why I’m pleased to announce that our new research provisions guidance has been published.

The consultation was a really valuable exercise for us, and we’d like to thank those organisations and individuals who responded. The feedback was extremely helpful and ensured that the new guidance is practical and speaks to issues that researchers, statisticians and archivists face in their day-to-day lives when it comes to data protection. We hope that the guidance provides you with clarity in a sometimes challenging area of data protection, and allows you to feel confident when conducting your research, collecting your statistics or working with archived information that you’ll remain compliant with data protection law.

For the first time, the guidance brings the research provisions together in one place, making it easy for you to refer to them. We explain how each of the provisions works and how they fit together, giving our interpretation of the key terms to assist you.

We’ve also clarified how the law works in the statistics and archive sectors – for example, if you are relying on the research provisions to process personal data to produce statistics, or to maintain and provide access to archived information that includes personal data.

The ICO is here to help. Our new guidance includes examples to explain the law in practical ways; something that was raised in the consultation. Data protection is an enabler, not a blocker, of good quality research – we want you and your research subjects to have trust and confidence that you are upholding their rights and treating them fairly.

We’re pleased that we’ve been able to introduce this guidance at a time of increasing profile and importance for the UK research, statistics and archiving sector. Technology and innovation are evolving at an ever-increasing pace and it’s important that we produce timely, effective guidance to ensure you know what you need to do to comply with data protection law.

This research provisions guidance joins our existing guidance on AI and data protection, co-authored with the Alan Turing Institute, and our developing guidance on anonymisation and pseudonymisation. This guidance was specifically highlighted as one of our ICO25 commitments. It builds on the work of our Innovation Hub and Sandbox teams, which are designed to provide researchers and organisations with a ‘safe space’ to test and develop their innovations with support and guidance provided by the regulator.

But we’re not stopping here.

We want to continuously improve our guidance to make it the best it can be. It’s a key aspect of our ICO25 strategy and we are keen to help organisations and people in the research, statistics and archiving sectors to use data in responsible and innovative ways. If you have a case study or example that would work well as part of our guidance, let us know. We’re keen to hear your thoughts and can work with you to develop helpful examples that will help other researchers, statisticians and archivists to comply with data protection law. If you’d like to help, please get in touch.

Ian Hulme is director of regulatory assurance at the ICO