Data Protection Act 1998

By Samantha Smith

What is it?

The Data Protection Act (DPA) is a law designed to protect personal data stored on computers or in an organised paper filing system.


The need for the Data Protection Act

During the second half of the 20th century, businesses, organisations and the government began using computers to store information about their customers, clients and staff in databases. For example:


  • names
  • addresses
  • contact information
  • employment history
  • medical conditions
  • convictions
  • credit history


Databases are easily accessed, searched and edited. It’s also far easier to cross reference information stored in two or more databases than if the records were paper-based. The computers on which databases resided were often networked. This allowed for organisation-wide access to databases and offered an easy way to share information with other organisations.


Misuse and unauthorised access to information

With more and more organisations using computers to store and process personal information there was a danger the information could be misused or get into the wrong hands. The concerns:

  • Who could access this information?
  • How accurate was the information?
  • Could it be easily copied?
  • Was it possible to store information about a person without the individual’s knowledge or permission?
  • Was a record kept of any changes made to information?

The purpose of the Data Protection Act

The 1998 Data Protection Act was passed by Parliament to control the way information is handled and to give legal rights to people who have information stored about them.


How the Data Protection Act works

The Data Protection Act was developed to give protection and lay down rules about how data about people can be used.

The 1998 Act covers information or data stored on a computer or an organised paper filing system about living people.

The basic way it works is by:


  • setting up rules that people have to follow
  • having an Information Commissioner to enforce the rules


It does not stop companies storing information about people. It just makes them follow rules.