Article 30(4) of the UK GDPR requires a controller to make available its records of processing activities (ROPA) available to the Information Commissioner (ICO) upon request.
ROPAs are required for most large controllers, and should include at least
- The name and contact details of the organisation (and where applicable the data protection officer).
- The purposes of processing.
- A description of the categories of individuals and categories of personal data.
- The categories of recipients of personal data.
- Details of transfers to third countries including documenting the transfer mechanism safeguards in place.
- Retention schedules.
- A description of the controller’s technical and organisational security measures.
Ordinarily, in my experience, controllers will maintain a ROPA in one document, or one set of linked documents. This not only enables a controller to comply with Article 30(4), but reflects the fact that a ROPA is not just a compliance obligation, but contributes to and assists the controller in its information governance functions.
This all makes the position of the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) rather odd. Because, in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for disclosure of its ROPA, it stated that the request was “vexatious” on the grounds of the time and costs it would have to incur to respond. This was because, as the DHSC subsequently told the ICO when the latter was asked to issue a FOIA decision notice
We hold a collection of documentation across different formats which, when put together, fulfils our obligation under Article 30 of the GDPR to record and document all of our personal data processing activities…[and]…to locate, retrieve and extract all of this
documentation would involve a manual trawl of the whole organisation
and each document would then need to be reviewed to check for content
such as personal data, commercially sensitive data and any other
information that would otherwise not be appropriate to place into the
For this reason, the ICO accepted that compliance with the request would be “grossly oppressive” and this, taken with other factors, meant that the FOIA request was indeed vexatious.
The ICO is tasked with regulating both FOIA and data protection law. The decision notice here notes this, and says
the Commissioner feels duty bound to note that, if the DHSC cannot comply with the request because it would impose a grossly oppressive burden to do so, it is unlikely that the DHSC would be able to provide its ROPA to the Commissioner, which is a requirement under Article 30 of the UK GDPR, without that same burden
There’s a big hint here to DHSC that it should adopt a different approach to its ROPA for the future.
But the decision notice does contain some rather strange wording. In the context of the words quotes just above, the ICO says
This decision notice looks at the DHSC’s compliance with FOIA only and the Commissioner cannot order the DHSC to take any action under any other legislation.
It is true that, under his FOIA powers, the ICO cannot order the DHSC to comply with the UK GDPR, but, quite evidently, under his UK GDPR powers, he certainly can: Article 58(2)(d) specifically empowers him to
order the controller…to bring processing operations into compliance with the provisions of this Regulation, where appropriate, in a specified manner and within a specified period
I am not aware of anything in FOIA, or data protection law (or wider regulatory and public law) that prevents the ICO from taking enforcement action under UK GDPR as a result of findings he has made under FOIA. Indeed, it would be rather strange if anything did prevent him from doing so.
So it does seem that the ICO could order DHSC to get its ROPA in order. Maybe the big hint in the FOIA decision notice will have the desired effect. But regulation by means of big hints is perhaps not entirely in compliance with the requirement on the ICO, deriving from the Regulators’ Code, to ensure that its approach to its regulatory activities is transparent.
The views in this post (and indeed most posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.