The spiralling distribution of digital information on the internet - including photographs - has moved the UK's privacy watchdog to revamp its guidelines, Amateur Photographer can reveal.

The spiralling distribution of digital information on the internet – including photographs – has moved the UK’s privacy watchdog to revamp its guidelines, Amateur Photographer (AP) can reveal.

A spokeswoman for Information Commissioner’s Office said that the ICO is drawing up a new ‘code of practice for online use’, a public consultation for which will open as early as December.

‘We recognise that the online environment has changed considerably,’ said an ICO spokeswoman.

However, the ICO stressed that the Data Protection Act does not stop someone from taking pictures in a public place.

The Data Protection Act is sometimes wrongly cited as a law that can prevent photos being taken without the subject’s permission.

For example, last Christmas, amateur photographer David Elder said that an Edinburgh council official stopped him taking photos of the city’s Winter Wonderland event on the grounds that he would be in breach of Data Protection laws.

The ICO spokeswoman confirmed that the Data Protection Act does not prevent someone taking photos in the street without the subject’s consent, provided that the images are for ‘personal use’ and the camera is not being used to harass people.

The spokeswoman also confirmed that the ICO treats images published on social networking websites, such as Facebook, as ‘personal use’ – in a similar way to ‘family albums’.

However, the ICO urged photographers to adopt a ‘common sense’ approach.

The spokeswoman stressed that, although background shots of passers-by will not normally breach the Data Protection Act, images of a small group of clearly identifiable people, sent for publication to a newspaper for example, may be considered an infringement.

In this situation, according to the ICO, photographers should ask themselves whether the subjects would object to their picture being published in this way, and consider blurring their faces.

The watchdog said that images of children taken in a public place fall under the same rules. Photos that happen to include children, yet taken without a parent’s or guardian’s permission, do not normally breach Data Protection guidelines.

Last week, the ICO emphasised that privacy matters ‘more now than ever before’.

‘Back in 1984, paper medical records were generally kept in filing cabinets, the internet was still in its infancy and Twitter was yet to be born,’ it said in a statement.

‘But the world has changed. In 2009, huge databases store millions of records containing our personal details, drivers’ number plates are automatically recognised on Britain’s road and millions of people upload photographs along with all sorts of personal details to social networking sites.’

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