The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has uploaded to its website (24 October) two undertakings for breaches of data controllers’ obligations under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA). Undertakings are part of the ICO’s suite of possible enforcement actions against controllers.
One undertaking was signed by Gwynedd Council, after incidents in which social care information was posted to the wrong address, and a social care file went missing in transit between two sites. The other, more notably, was signed by the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS), who signed a previous undertaking in March this year, after failing to amend a question (“e55″) on its application form which had been rendered obsolete by legislative changes. The March undertaking noted that
Question e55 of the application form asked the individuals ‘Have you ever been convicted of a criminal offence or received a caution, reprimand or warning?’ [Some applicants] responded positively to this question even though it was old and minor caution/conviction information that would have been filtered under the legislation. The individual’s positive response to question e55 was then seen by prospective employers who withdrew their job offers
This unnecessary disclosure was, said the ICO, unfair processing of sensitive personal data, and the undertaking committed DBS to amend the question on the form by the end of March.
However, the latest undertaking reveals that
application forms which do not contain the necessary amendments remain in circulation. This is because a large number of third party organisations are continuing to rely on legacy forms issued prior to the amendment of question e55. In the Commissioner’s view, the failure to address these legacy forms could be considered to create circumstances under which the unfair processing of personal data arises
The March undertaking had also committed DBS to ensure that supporting information provided to those bodies with access to the form be
kept under review to ensure that they continue to receive up to date, accurate and relevant guidance in relation to filtered matters
One might cogently argue that part of that provision of up-to-date guidance should have involved ensuring that those bodies destroyed old, unamended forms. And if one did argue that successfully, one would arrive at the conclusion that DBS could be in breach of the March undertaking for failing to do so. Breach of an undertaking does not automatically result in more serious sanctions, but they are available to the ICO, in the form of monetary penalties and enforcement notices. DBS might consider themselves lucky to have been given a second (or third?) chance, under which they must, by the end of of the year at the latest ensure that unamended legacy application forms containing are either rejected or removed from circulation.
One final point I would make is that no press release appears to have been put out about yesterday’s undertakings, nothing is on the ICO’s home page, and there wasn’t even a tweet from their twitter account. A large part of a successful enforcement regime is publicising when action has been taken. The ICO’s own policy on this says
Publicising our enforcement and regulatory activities is an important part of our role as strategic regulator, and a deterrent for potential offenders
Letting “offenders” off the publicising hook runs the risk of diminishing that deterrent effect.