A circular from the Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office raises concerns about some public authorities’ data protection compliance
The benighted (although often misrepresented) Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) had at least the ostensible worthy aim of ensuring that, when public authorities conducted investigations which were intrusive on people’s private lives, those investigations took place in accordance with the law. Thus, under Chapter II of Part 1 of RIPA, authorisations may be granted within an organisation to acquire, or an application made to require a postal or telecommunications operator to disclose, communications data (“communications data”, in the words of the Statutory Code of Practice “embraces the ‘who’, ‘when’ and ‘where’ of a communication but not the content, not what was said or written”). If the acquisition is done in accordance with RIPA, and the Code of Practice, it will in general terms be done lawfully.
The acquisition and disclosure of communications data under RIPA is overseen by the Interception of Communications Commissioner who is appointed pursuant to section 57 RIPA. It is the Commissioner’s role to review the exercise and performance of relevant persons’ functions under the Act. From time to time his office (IOCCO) will also issue circulars, and one such landed on the desks of Senior Responsible Officers of relevant public authorities earlier this month. Laudably, IOCCO has also uploaded it to its website and its contents are worrying not just because they indicate errors in complying with RIPA authorisations and applications, but also with the data protection compliance of the authorities involved. The circular, from the Head of IOCCO, Jo Cavan, states that
in the first six month period of the reporting year (January to June 2014) there have been 195 applicant errors – of which 153 (78%) were, according to the reports submitted to IOCCO, caused by the applicant submitting the wrong communications address. [emphasis in original]
As I say, the provisions of RIPA at least implicitly acknowledge that acquisition and disclosure of communications data will be highly intrusive actions. But failure to ensure that the data acquired is accurate means that such intrusion has taken place into the private communications of people totally uninvolved in the investigations being undertaken, as the circular highlights
In all cases the applicant error led to communications data being acquired relating to members of the public who had no connection to the investigation or operation being undertaken
but most chillingly
one of these errors led to executive action being taken against a member of the public who had no connection to the investigation being undertaken
Although no indication is given of what the deceptively bland phrase “executive action” actually consisted of.
The fourth principle in Schedule One of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) requires in terms that data controllers take reasonable steps to ensure the accuracy of personal data they process. Failure to comply with that obligation potentially gives rise to civil claims by data subjects, and, in qualifying serious cases, civil enforcement action by the Information Commissioner’s Office, which can serve monetary penalty notices to a maximum of £500,000. Moreover, the seventh principle in Schedule One of the DPA requires to data controllers to take appropriate technical and organisational measures to safeguard against the unfair or unlawful processing of personal data. IOCCO’s Circular notes that
It is unsatisfactory to note that the telephone numbers / email addresses / Internet Protocol (IP) addresses were, in the vast majority of cases, derived from records available to the applicant in electronic form and as such could have been electronically copied into the application to ensure accuracy. SROs must develop, implement and robustly enforce measures to require applicants to electronically copy communications addresses into applications when the source is in electronic form (for example forensic reports relating to mobile phones, call data records etc). Communications addresses acquired from other sources must be properly checked to reduce the scope for error. It is not acceptable for public authorities to simply state that applicants have been reminded to double check communications addresses to prevent recurrence
This points to possible failure by the authorities in question to take appropriate DPA principle 7 measures.
IOCCO’s enforcement powers in this regard are limited, although the circular notes that the Commissioner shall, where appropriate, notify affected individuals of the existence and role of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) but complainants would not be restricted from complaining to the IPT – the Surveillance Roadmap (“a shared approach to the regulation of surveillance in the United Kingdom”) agreed between the UK’s surfeit of privacy commissioners, allows for the possibility of someone aggrieved by intrusive obtaining of communications data making a complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) as well as the IPT. It does state that “the ICO does not have the necessary [sic] powers to investigate breaches of RIPA and will only make a decision as to whether it is likely or unlikely that an organisation has complied with the DPA”, but it does strike me that a complaint to the ICO is a lot easier to make than an application to the IPT. Or, alternatively, a civil claim (under section 13 DPA) through the courts on the basis that the public authority in question had contravened its obligations opens up the possibility of a damages award. This might be a more attractive option for an complainant, because, although damages are a remedy available in the IPT (under s67(7) RIPA), it is notable that there is no right of appeal from an IPT decision (s67(8)).
One last point – the Surveillance Roadmap tries to draw lines separating the functions of the various commissioners. This is sensible, and aims to avoid overlap and duplication of functions, but one wonders if the ICO might be interested in looking at the DPA compliance of the authorities who erred so notably in the cases seen by IOCCO.