The importance of data privacy and access to official information should be embedded in the formal education process, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) said today, as it launched a research project to explore ways of getting information rights issues covered in primary and secondary education systems in the UK.

The research project aims to ensure that young people are aware of the threats to their privacy and how to protect themselves, understanding the practical and legal safeguards that can help them. The project will also explore how young people can be encouraged to exploit the increasing availability of public information to their advantage.

The ICO has already led a number of initiatives aimed at reaching young people including a youth area on its website, a data protection DVD for secondary schools, a presence on online community games website Habbo Hotel, and an annual student brand ambassador campaign. However, expert opinion suggests that these initiatives have only limited chances of success unless the education of information rights becomes a more mainstream component of a young person’s formal education.

Research undertaken as part of law firm Speechly Bircham’s youth data protection campaign ‘i in online’ has found that, of over 4,000 young people questioned, 88% of secondary school respondents and 39% of primary school children have a profile on a social networking site.

Despite this, 60% of respondents hadn’t read the privacy policies of the networking sites they use, 32% didn’t know what a privacy policy was, and 23% said they didn’t know where to find it.

Jonathan Bamford, Head of Strategic Liaison at the ICO, said:

Young people today are growing up in an age where an ever increasing amount of information is held about them. It is vital that they understand their privacy rights and how to exercise them.

“We are also now seeing a big move towards transparency with more official information being released than ever before. The Freedom of Information Act is an important tool in holding decision makers to account. By being aware of their rights to access information, young people will feel more empowered to ask important questions about the things that matter to them – be it about their local leisure centre, or what the government is doing on university tuition fees or the environment.

“While we appreciate that some information rights issues are already covered in specific subjects encompassing IT and law, we want to see a move towards schools embedding information rights issues as part of the mainstream education process – giving young people skills that will serve them well throughout their adult lives.

The ICO is now inviting tenders for a research partner to help examine the current landscape and make recommendations.

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