Personal data protection still a problem in the Czech Republic

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When the Office for Personal Data Protection was established three years ago few Czechs had a clear idea as to its activities and raison d'etre. Now, the office has established itself as a respected independent body which supervises the processing of personal data and deals with people's grievances regarding infringements on their right to privacy. Many people call to inquire whether their employer has a right to read their e-mail, to be informed about their state of health or how their ID number could be misused if it falls into the wrong hands. Computerization and the internet have made it much easier to collect data about people and Czechs, who were used to having the communist authorities collect whatever private data they thought fit, are now waking up to the fact that they have a right to privacy. The head of the Office for Protection of Personal Data Karel Neuwirt explains that educating people about their rights is one of the important tasks on the office's agenda :

"Czech citizens had a habit of giving their ID number to just anyone without asking for what purpose it was needed, how it would be used or for how long it would be archived. The absence of a history in data protection makes it difficult for institutions and individuals to accept the principles of data protection and act accordingly. That is why it is our role -and a very important one - to educate both the broad public and professionals in this matter."

I understand you are also helping other - eastern - states to set up similar institutions of their own ...?

"Yes, we /the central European countries/ have regular consultations with the Baltic states and we debate our common problems. From time to time we observe that our difficulties are different from those of EU members states so we get together and discuss how to deal with these problems and how to best prepare for entry into the EU."

Could you specify in what way your problems differ for those of the EU member states?

"Yes, collecting and abusing ID numbers for example, is typical for this part of the world. Abusing personal data gathered by the former communist secret service is another example. Those are features typical of eastern Europe and they are linked to our common legacy, to the ways in which the system worked before. We all need to amend our health legislation in order to protect people's right to privacy as well as legislation pertaining to the banking sector. And of course another common aspect is that all this is new to the countries of the post communist world. Data protection and the right to privacy are entirely new concepts for us and we are striving to become increasingly harmonized with the countries of the EU."