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IRISS Press Release – Study finds 4 in 10 organisations obstruct our access to our own data


Study, led by the University of Sheffield, investigated 327 organisations in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Slovakia, Spain and the United Kingdom. 

An international study that examines the obstacles facing citizens in accessing their personal data will be presented at a conference in Sheffield this week. It finds serial malpractice and obfuscation on the part of public and private sector organisations when citizens seek clarification of what these organisations know about them.  The study forms part of the IRISS (Increasing Resilience in Surveillance Societies) project, funded by the European Union. It documents the actual experience citizens have when trying to use the law to access their data.

European and national laws give citizens the right to know how their personal data is used, shared and processed by private and public sector organisations. The study, encompassing citizen interactions with 327 sites, found that what should have been a straightforward process was complex, confusing, frustrating and, in the end, largely unsuccessful. The research sites were chosen based on a consideration of the socio-economic domains in which citizens encounter surveillance on a systematic basis. These domains were health, transport, employment, education, finance, leisure, communication, consumerism, civic engagement, and security and criminal justice.

Professor Clive Norris, a specialist in the sociology of surveillance and social control from the University of Sheffield, led the study in partnership with his colleague Dr Xavier L’Hoiry. He said: “We part with our personal data on a daily basis, creating vast and invisible reservoirs of actionable personal information. We do this actively and passively, and our experience of the world is reshaped in ways that we don’t appreciate.  We are selectively marketed to, our locations are tracked by CCTV and automated licence plate recognition systems and our online behaviour is monitored, analysed, stored and used. The challenge for all of us is that our information is often kept from us, despite the law and despite our best efforts to access it.”

The research found that the spirit of the European Data Protection Directive has frequently been undermined as it has been transposed into national legal frameworks, and then further undermined by  evolving national case law. Citizens, in their role of data subjects, encounter a wide range of legitimate but not always convincing and straightforward restrictions in their attempts to exercise their rights. These legal restrictions are further undermined by serial obfuscation on the part of data controllers or their representatives.

The right of access is generally exercised by submitting an access request to a nominated data controller but, before this can begin, the data controller must be located. The research across 327 sites found that, in a significant minority (20%) of cases, it was simply not possible to locate a data controller. Where data controllers could be located, the quality of information concerning the process of making an access request varied enormously. In the best cases, information was thorough and followed legislative guidelines closely, providing citizens with an unambiguous pathway to exercise their right of access. In the worst cases information was very basic, often failing to explain how to make an access request or indeed what an access request actually is.

The most reliable and efficient way of locating data controllers turned out to be on-line. In nearly two thirds (63%) of all cases, on-line searching provided the relevant contact details, and this was achieved in less than five minutes over half (61%) of the time. Attempts to locate data controllers using alternative methods generally did not fare well. In the majority of cases, when contacting organisations by telephone, members of staff lacked knowledge concerning subject access requests. As a result, answers were often incorrect, confusing and contradictory.

When it was possible to locate the data controller via telephone, this took over 6 minutes, sometimes on premium rate lines, in over half (54%) of all cases. Even then, the information provided via telephone was rated as ‘good’ in only 34% of cases.

In the case of CCTV data, where researchers attended sites in person, nearly 1 in 5 sites (18%) did not display any CCTV signage. Where signage was present, in more than four in ten cases (43%) it was rated as ‘poor’ in terms of visibility and content. Only one third (32.5%) of CCTV signage named the CCTV system operator or  data controller.

By failing to display appropriate signage at CCTV sites, one fifth of organisations effectively employed illegal practices. Staff approached in person lacked expertise and  frequently reacted to queries with suspicion and skepticism, questioning why one would wish to access their personal data. Thus, researchers merely trying to find the contact details of the data controller were forced to justify why they sought to exercise their democratic rights, and even then they were frequently denied.

When it was possible to locate the data controller, the process of submitting an access request was often problematic with data controllers employing a range of discourses of denial which restrict or completely deny data subjects the ability to exercise their informational rights.

Subject access requests were sent from 10 European countries to 184 individual public and private sector organisations sampled from the first part of the empirical phase of the research. The requests were made for a range of data, including paper, digital and CCTV records. Requests made three demands of data controllers: disclosure of personal data; disclosure of third parties with whom data had been shared and disclosure of whether (and if so how) data had been subject to automated decision making processes.

The research found that obtaining a satisfactory response concerning all aspects of the requests was a relatively rare occurrence. Four out of ten requests (43%) did not result in personal data being disclosed or data subjects receiving a legitimate reason for the failure to disclose their personal data. In over half of all cases (56%), no adequate or legally compliant response was received concerning third party data sharing.  In over two-thirds of cases (71%) automated decision making processes were either not addressed or not addressed in a legally compliant manner.

Even in those cases where successful outcomes were achieved, the process of submitting an access request was often fraught, confusing and time-consuming. Holding/acknowledgement letters were received in only a third (34%) of cases, which meant that data subjects had no idea whether the requests were being dealt with or simply ignored.

Even where data subjects received their personal data, in some instances the disclosure of this data was incomplete and additional data was still outstanding. This occurred in one third of cases (31%) and required researchers to pursue data controllers for more information as the first disclosure was incomplete.

There were noted variations in how different types of organisations responded to requests. In general, public sector organisations performed less badly than those in the private sector, with only 43% engaging in restrictive practices compared with 62% in the private sector.

Requests for CCTV footage were particularly problematic, with seven out of ten requests for CCTV footage being met by restrictive practices from data controllers or their representative.

While loyalty card scheme operators were generally facilitative in disclosing personal data (86% of cases), they did not perform as strongly in providing information about automated decision making processes (only 50% of cases). Meanwhile, requests made to banks did not yield much information about third party data sharing (only 30% of responses disclosed this).

Professor Clive Norris said: “In our view, there is an urgent requirement for policymakers to address the failure of law at the European level and its implementation into national law. Organisations must ensure that they conform to the law. In particular, organisations need to make it clear who is responsible for dealing with requests from citizens; they need to train their staff so they are aware of their responsibilities under law; and they need to implement clear and unambiguous procedures to facilitate citizens making access requests. Finally national data protection authorities must have the legal means and organisational resources to both encourage and police compliance.”

The Increasing Resilience in Surveillance Societies (IRISS) project, led by the Institute for the Sociology of Law and Criminology (IRKS, Austria), was funded by the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under grant no 285593. Work Package 5 of the IRISS project entitled ‘Exercising democratic rights in surveillance regimes’ was led by the University of Sheffield.

The following partner institutions took part in the work package: the Eotvos Karoly Policy Institute (Hungary), the Institute for the Sociology of Law and Criminology (IRKS, Austria), the Institute of Technology Assessment (Austria), the University of Hamburg (Germany), Vrije University of Brussel (Belgium), Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (Spain), the Peace Research Institute Oslo (Norway), the Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (Italy), Comenius University Bratislava (Slovakia).

IRISS website: 

The executive summary, policy brief, meta-analyses and individual country reports can all be accessed here:

For more information, please contact:
Professor Clive Norris –
Dr Xavier L’Hoiry –

Report on Surveillance Impact published

This  report presents  case  studies  of  three  surveillance  practices  across  Europe:  ANPR, Credit Scoring and Neighbourhood Watch representing different  institutional  surveillant  relationships and examines  how  democratic  resilience  can  be  increased  in  the  face  of  pervasive surveillance  practices.  For further information, including a copy of the report, please visit our Research page.

Horizon 2020 spotlights the IRISS project

The Horizon 2020 newsroom has published an article highlighting efforts of the IRISS project in relation to Surveillance and Society. The news item can be found here.

IRISS meets ETTIS at the workshop on prioritisation of research-based opportunities in cyber security and Professional Security Capabilities (PSC)

IRISS meets ETTIS at the workshop on prioritisation of research-based opportunities in cyber security and Professional Security Capabilities (PSC), London, 19 June 2014 

The ETTIS consortium organised a workshop in London on 19 June 2014 (0900-1630) focusing on the assessment and prioritisation of research based opportunities for strategic long-term planning in security research. The event was held at Imperial College’s South Kensington Campus – Sherfield Building Seminar & Learning Centre. There were 21 participants on the day. The workshop focussed on different aspects in cyber-related topics such as Cyber Civic Resilience (CCR), Cyber Defense Decision Support (CDDS) and also on Professional Security Capabilities (PSC).The WP leader AIT provided an overview of work done so far on CDDS and CCR.  During the workshop the ETTIS consortium and invited experts discussed the pre-identified research based-opportunities in two thematic groups. Rowena Rodrigues from Trilateral Research presented the key research findings and results of the IRISS project as part of the cross-fertilization efforts advocated by the ETTIS project officer. There was some evidence of the intended cross-fertilisation during the workshop discussions, particularly during the thematic discussion on surveillance and society, and the interest expressed in the outputs of the IRISS project (participants were directed to the project website) and the final conference.

IRISS – Press Release: “European responses to the Snowden revelations” (Discussion Paper)

IRISS project discusses European responses to the Snowden revelations

A European research consortium has prepared a discussion paper on European responses to the revelations that have been emerging from the documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the contractor to the US National Security Agency (NSA).

The discussion paper reviews the institutional responses to the Snowden revelations, the judicial and legal consequences, the societal, economic, media responses as well as the positive impacts of the revelations.

It draws various conclusions related to the failure of oversight, the privacy-security trade-off paradigm, the breakdown of open democracy, resilience in a surveillance society and protecting privacy in a surveillance society.

The discussion paper is available for download on the IRISS consortium’s website. IRISS is the acronym for Increasing Resilience in a Surveillance Society, which comprises 16 partners from nine EU countries. The project, which began in February 2012, analyses the spread of surveillance systems and technologies in public and private sectors from the perspective of their impact on the fabric of a democratic society. The project aims to explore options for increasing social, economic and institutional resilience and strengthening democratic processes and public discourse about appropriate reactions towards threats against open democratic societies. The EU provided the three-year IRISS project with a grant of €2.6 million.

The discussion paper identifies several positive impacts of the Snowden revelations. They have helped immeasurably to raise society’s awareness of the pervasiveness of surveillance. The revelations have placed surveillance high on the political agenda. The issue of accountability is now being discussed. Until the revelations began, it appeared that there was minimal or no accountability of the NSA and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the UK counterpart to the NSA, to their elected officials. Some of the companies subject to surveillance intrusions have increased their security to make it more difficult for governments to surveil their networks. The NSA revelations seem to have had a salutary effect on the public’s paying more attention to their privacy. A Harris poll released 13 November 2013 showed that four out of five people have changed the privacy settings of their social media accounts, and most have made changes in the previous six months.

The discussion paper refers to the bane of the privacy-security trade-off paradigm. When politicians such as President Obama say that they welcome a discussion of the trade-offs between security and civil liberties, the public should be on guard. In striking a balance between collective security and individual privacy, the latter almost always loses out. However, the authors note that many experts and academics have discredited the trade-off paradigm. It is possible to have both privacy and security, without reducing one or the other. A better paradigm is to create what could be called a “balanced risk awareness. This requires the socially responsible management of risks, i.e., to identify risks to privacy and security, either separately or together, and, preferably in consultation with stakeholders, to identify ways of overcoming those risks with no or minimal negative impacts on privacy and/or security.  The discussion examines these issues and more and can be found at

The IRISS consortium is led by the Institute for the Sociology of Law and Criminology (IRKS, Austria). The other partners include Trilateral Research & Consulting (UK), the University of Stirling (UK), the University of Edinburgh (UK), the Eotvos Karoly Policy Institute (Hungary), the Institute of Technology Assessment (Austria), the University of Sheffield (UK), the University of Hamburg (Germany), Vrije University of Brussel (Belgium), Open University (UK), Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (Spain), Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der angewandten Forschung e.V (Germany), the Peace Research Institute Oslo (Norway), the Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (Italy), Comenius University Bratislava (Slovakia) and the Universität der Bundeswehr München (Germany).

For more information, contact: