ICO – no GDPR fines in the immediate pipeline

FOI request reveals ICO has served no “notices of intent” to serve fines under GDPR. A new piece by me on the Mishcon de Reya website.

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MPs, Lords, councillors exempt from data protection fee

As I have previously discussed on the Mishcon de Reya website, the General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”) removed the requirement at European law for data controllers to “register” with their supervisory authority. However, in the UK, the need to provide a funding stream for the data protection work of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) led parliament to pass laws (The Data Protection (Charges and Information) Regulations 2018) (“the Fee Regulations”), made under sections 137 and 138 of the Data Protection Act 2018 (“DPA”)) requiring controllers to pay a fee to the ICO, unless an exemption applied.

New amendment regulations (The Data Protection (Charges and Information) (Amendment) Regulations 2019) have now been passed, following a consultation run by DCMS last year. These mean that new categories of exempt processing are introduced. In short, processing of personal data by members of the House of Lords, elected representatives and prospective representatives is also now “exempt processing” for the purposes of the Fee Regulations. “Elected representative” means (adopting the definition at paragraph 23(3)(a) to (d) and (f) to (m) of Schedule 1 to the DPA)

a member of the House of Commons;
a member of the National Assembly for Wales;
a member of the Scottish Parliament;
a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly;
an elected member of a local authority within the meaning of section 270(1) of the Local Government Act 1972
an elected mayor of a local authority within the meaning of Part 1A or 2 of the Local Government Act 2000;
a mayor for the area of a combined authority established under section 103 of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009;
the Mayor of London or an elected member of the London Assembly;
an elected member of the Common Council of the City of London, or the Council of the Isles of Scilly;
an elected member of a council constituted under section 2 of the Local Government etc (Scotland) Act 1994;
an elected member of a district council within the meaning of the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 1972;
a police and crime commissioner.

But, it should be noted, MEPs’ processing is not exempt, and, for the time being at least, they must still pay a fee.

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Computer says “no”

I have another piece up on the Mishcon de Reya Data Matters site:

Computer says no – data protection and reasonable adjustments

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Regulatory cooperation and information sharing

I have a new piece up on the Mishcon de Reya Data Matters pages. You can read it here.

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There’s nothing like transparency…

…and this is nothing like transparency

Those of us with long memories will remember that, back in 2007, in those innocent days when no one quite knew what the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) really meant, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), disclosed some of its internal advice (“Lines to Take” or “LTTs”) to its own staff about how to respond to questions and enquiries from members of the public about FOIA. My memory (I hope others might confirm) is that ICO resisted this disclosure for some time. Now, the advice documents reside on the “FOIWiki” pages (where they need, in my opinion, a disclaimer to the effect that some of the them at least are old, and perhaps out-of-date).

Since 2007 a number of further FOIA requests have been made for more recent LTTs – for instance, in 2013, I made a request, and had disclosed to me, a number of LTTs on data protection matters.

It is, therefore, with some astonishment, that I note that a recent FOIA request to ICO for up-to-date LTTs – encompassing recent changes to data protection law – has been refused, on the basis that, apparently, disclosure would, or would be likely to, inhibit the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of  deliberation, and would otherwise prejudice, or would be likely otherwise to prejudice, the effective conduct of public affairs. This is problematic, and concerning, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the exemptions claimed, which are at section 36 of FOIA, are the statute’s howitzers – they get brought into play when all else fails, and have the effect of flattening everything around them. For this reason, the public authority invoking them must have the “reasonable opinion” of its “qualified person” that disclosure would, or would be likely to, cause the harm claimed. For the ICO, the “qualified person” is the Information Commissioner (Elizabeth Denham) herself. Yet there is no evidence that she has indeed provided this opinion. For that reason, the refusal notice falls – as a matter of law – at the first hurdle.

Secondly, even if Ms Denham had provided her reasonable opinion, the response fails to say why the exemptions are engaged – it merely asserts that they are, in breach of section 17(1)(c) of FOIA.

Thirdly, it posits frankly bizarre public interest points purportedly militating against disclosure, such as that the LTTs “exist as part of the process by which we create guidance, not as guidance by themselves”, and “that ICO  staff should have a safe space to provide colleagues with advice for them to respond to challenges posed to us in a changing data protection landscape”, and – most bizarre of all – “following a disclosure of  such notes in the past, attempts have been made to utilise similar documents to undermine our regulatory procedures” (heaven forfend someone might cite a regulator’s own documents to advance their case).

There has been such an enormous amount of nonsense spoken about the new data protection regime, and I have praised ICO for confronting some of the myths which have been propagated by the ignorant or the venal. There continues to be great uncertainty and ignorance, and disclosing these LTTs could go a long way towards combatting these. In ICO’s defence, it does identify this as a public interest factor militating in favour of disclosure:

disclosure may help improve knowledge regarding the EIR, FOIA or  the new data protection legislation on which the public desire information as evidenced by our increase in calls and enquiry handling

And as far as I’m concerned, that should be the end of the matter. Whether the requester (a certain “Alan Shearer”) chooses to challenge the refusal is another question.

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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ICO – “we’re very sorry we fined you”

***Update, 3 September. ICO have now published their apology – although scant on details it does state that “there were significantly fewer complaints than previously evidenced” and that this information led to the withdrawal of the MPN.***

It’s not unusual for the recipient of a monetary penalty notice (MPN) to appeal to the Information Tribunal. It’s not entirely unusual for such appeals to be settled by consent of the parties (normally when one of them concedes that its case is not tenable).

It’s much rarer, however, for a consent order to have attached to it a requirement that the Information Commissioner’s Office should apologise for serving the MPN in the first place. But that’s exactly what has recently happened. A consent order dated 25 September 2018 states that, by consent, the appeal by STS Commercial Limited is allowed, and that

The Commissioner will publish [for four weeks] on the Information Commissioner’s Office website in the section “News, blogs and speeches”, the following statement:

On 6 July 2018 the ICO announced that the Information Commissioner had imposed a fine of £60,000 on STS Commercial Ltd for allowing its lines to be used to send spam texts. STS Commercial Ltd appealed that penalty and upon considering the grounds of appeal, the ICO accepts that the appeal should be allowed and no monetary penalty should be imposed. The ICO apologises to STS Commercial Ltd.

Already, most of the traces of the MPN have been removed from the ICO’s website (and Google returns broken links), although the apology itself does not appear to have yet been uploaded.

Section 55B(5) of the Data Protection 1998 provides for the right of appeal, in respect of MPNs served by the ICO under section 55A for contraventions of the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003. And paragraph 37 of the Tribunal Procedure (First-tier Tribunal) (General Regulatory Chamber) Rules 2009 provides that the Tribunal may

make a consent order disposing of the proceedings and making such other appropriate provision as the parties have agreed

One wonders what on earth occurred that has led not just to the appeal being disposed of, but such contrition from the ICO!

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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The wheels of the Ministry of Justice

do they turn so slowly that they’ll lead to the Lord Chancellor committing a criminal offence?

On 21 December last year, as we were all sweeping up the mince piece crumbs, removing our party hats and switching off the office lights for another year, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) published, with no accompanying publicity whatsoever, an enforcement notice served on the Secretary of State for Justice. The notice drew attention to the fact that in July 2017 the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) had had a backlog of 919 subject access requests from individuals, some of which dated back to 2012. And by November 2017 that had barely improved – to 793 cases dating back to 2014.

I intended to blog about this at the time, but it’s taken me around nine months to retrieve my chin from the floor, such was the force with which it dropped.

Because we should remember that the exercise of the right of subject access is a fundamental aspect of the fundamental right to protection of personal data. Requesting access to one’s data enables one to be aware of, and verify the lawfulness of, the processing. Don’t take my word for it – look at recital 41 of the-then applicable European data protection directive, and recital 63 of the now-applicable General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

And bear in mind that the nature of the MoJ’s work means it often receives subject access requests from prisoners, or others who are going through or have been through the criminal justice system. I imagine that a good many of these horrendously delayed requests were from people with a genuinely-held concern, or grievance, and not just from irritants like me who are interested in data controllers’ compliance.

The notice required MoJ to comply with all the outstanding requests by 31 October 2018. Now, you might raise an eyebrow at the fact that this gave the MoJ an extra eight months to respond to requests which were already incredibly late and which should have been responded to within forty days, but what’s an extra 284 days when things have slipped a little? (*Pseuds’ corner alert* It reminds me of Larkin’s line in The Whitsun Weddings about being so late that he feels: “all sense of being in a hurry gone”).

Maybe one reason the ICO gave MoJ so long to sort things out is that enforcement notices are serious things – a failure to comply is, after all, a criminal offence punishable on indictment by an unlimited fine. So one notes with interest a recent response to a freedom of information request for the regular updates which the notice also required MoJ to provide.

This reveals that by July this year MoJ had whittled down those 793 delayed cases to 285, with none dating back further than 2016. But I’m not going to start hanging out the bunting just yet, because a) more recent cases might well be more complex (because the issues behind them will be likely to be more current, and therefore potentially more complex, and b) because they don’t flaming well deserve any bunting because this was, and remains one of the most egregious and serious compliance failures it’s been my displeasure to have seen.

And what if they don’t clear them all by 31 October? The notice gives no leeway, no get-out – if any of those requests extant at November last year remains unanswered by November this year, the Right Honourable David Gauke MP (the current incumbent of the position of Secretary of State for Justice) will, it appears, have committed a criminal offence.

Will he be prosecuted?

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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Filed under access to information, Data Protection, Directive 95/46/EC, GDPR, human rights, Information Commissioner, Ministry of Justice, Uncategorized

Prospective customers and PECR

Who is a “prospective customer”, and can businesses rely on the PECR soft opt-in to send such persons unsolicited direct electronic marketing?

The law says – in terms – that one cannot send unsolicited direct marketing by electronic means (for instance by email) to an email address belonging to an “individual subscriber” (in broad terms, this will be a person’s home, or private, email address) unless the recipient has consented to receive it, or if the sender has obtained the contact details of the recipient in the course of the sale or negotiations for the sale of a product or service to that recipient, the marketing is in respect of the sender’s similar products and services only and the recipient was given the option to opt out of such marketing at the time their details were collected, and in any subsequent communication. This is what regulation 22 of the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) 2003 (PECR) says, and has done for fifteen years (the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has slightly altered what is meant by consent, but, other than that, is largely irrelevant here).

For the purposes of this blog post I want to focus on the following words in italics:

…if the sender has obtained the contact details of the recipient in the course of the sale or negotiations for the sale of a product or service…

This clearly means that direct electronic marketing can be sent, in appropriate circumstances, to someone who is not yet, and indeed might not ever become, an actual retail customer of the sender.

In light of this, I’m surprised to note the following words in the Information Commissioner’s Office’s guidance on PECR

The soft opt-in rule means you may be able to email or text your own customers, but it does not apply to prospective customers or new contacts

It seems to me that “prospective customers” is capable of a range of meanings. On one hand, a prospective customer might be (as the ICO goes on to mention as an example) someone from a bought-in contact list, and with whom the sender who proposes to send electronic marketing has no relationship whatsoever. But, on the other hand, someone who enters into “negotiations for the sale of a product or service” is surely also a “prospective customer”?

I can’t see the ICO’s guidance here as anything but confusing and potentially misleading.

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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GDPR – an unqualified right to rectification?

Can FCA – or any data controller – any longer argue that it’s too expensive to have to rectify inaccurate personal data?

Amidst all the hoo-ha about the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in terms of increased sanctions, accountability requirements and nonsense about email marketing, it’s easy to overlook some changes that it has also (or actually) wrought.

One small, but potentially profound difference, lies in the provisions around accuracy, and data subjects’ rights to rectification.

GDPR – as did its predecessor, the 1995 Data Protection Directive – requires data controllers to take “every reasonable step” to ensure that, having regard to the purposes of the processing, personal data which are inaccurate are erased or rectified without delay. Under the Directive the concomitant data subject right was to obtain from the controller, as appropriate the rectification, erasure or blocking of data. Under Article 16 of GDPR, however, there is no qualification or restriction of the right:

The data subject shall have the right to obtain from the controller without undue delay the rectification of inaccurate personal data concerning him or her.

I take this to mean that, yes, a controller must in general only take every reasonable step to ensure that inaccurate data is rectified (the “proactive obligation”, let us call it), but, when put on notice by a data subject exercising his or her right to rectification, the controller MUST rectify – and there is no express proportionality get-out (let us call this the “reactive obligation”).

This distinction, this significant strengthening of the data subject’s right, is potentially significant, it seems to me, in the recently-reported case of Alistair Hinton and the Financial Conduct Agency (FCA).

It appears that Mr Hinton has, for a number of years, been pursuing complaints against the FCA over alleged inaccuracies in its register of regulated firms, and in particular over an allegation that

a register entry which gave the impression both him [sic] and his wife were directors of a firm which the regulator had publicly censured

This puts into rather simple terms what appears to be a lengthy and complex complaint, stretching over several years, and which has resulted in three separate determinations by the Financial Regulators Complaints Commissioner (FRCC) (two of which appear to be publicly available). I no doubt continue to over-simplify when I say that the issue largely turns on whether the information on the register is accurate or not. In his February 2017 determination the FRCC reached the following conclusions (among others)

You and your wife have been the unfortunate victims of an unintended consequence of the design of the FSA’s (and now FCA’s) register, coupled with a particular set of personal circumstances;

…Since 2009 the FSA/FCA have accepted that your register entries are misleading, and have committed to reviewing the register design at an appropriate moment;

Although these findings don’t appear to have been directly challenged by the FCA, it is fair to note that the FCA are reported, in the determinations, as having maintained that the register entries are “technically and legally correct”, whilst conceding that they are indeed potentially misleading.

The most recent FRCC determination reports, as does media coverage, that the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is also currently involved. Whilst the FRCC‘s role is not to decide whether the FCA has acted lawfully or not, the ICO can assess whether or not the FCA’s processing of personal data is in accordance with the law.

And it occurs to me that the difference here between the Directive’s “reactive obligation” and GDPR’s “reactive obligation” to rectify inaccurate data (with the latter not having any express proportionality test) might be significant, because, until now, FCA has apparently relied on the fact that correcting the misleading information on its register would require system changes costing an estimated £50,000 to £100,000, and the FRCC has not had the power to challenge FCA’s argument that the cost of “a proper fix” was disproportionate. But if the Article 16 right is in general terms unqualified (subject to the Article 12(5) ability for a controller to charge for, or refuse to comply with, a request that is manifestly unfounded or excessive), can FCA resist a GDPR application for rectification? And could the ICO decide any differently?

Of course, one must acknowledge that there is a general principle of proportionality at European law (enshrined in Article 5 of the Treaty of the European Union) so a regulator, or a court, cannot simply dispense with the concept. But there was clearly an intention by European legislature not to put an express qualification on the right to rectification (and by extension the reactive obligation it places on controllers), and that will need to be the starting point for any assessment by said regulator, or court.

 

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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(Data)setting an example

Is the ICO failing to comply with its own obligations under FOI law?

Some UK regulators are subject to the laws or rules they themselves oversee and enforce. Thus, for example, the Advertising Standards Authority should avoid advertising its services in contravention of its own code of advertising practice, the Environment Agency should avoid using a waste carrier who is not authorised to carry waste, and the Information Commissioner (ICO) – as a public authority under Schedule 1 of the same – should not breach the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). However, I think I can point to numerous examples (I estimate there are 57 on its own website at the time of writing this) where the last has done precisely this, possibly unknowingly, or – if knowingly – with no contrition whatsoever.

In 2012 sections 11 and 19 of FOIA were amended by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 (POFA). POFA inserted into FOIA what are colloquially known as the “dataset provisions”. For our purposes here, what these say is that

Under its publication scheme a public authority should publish datasets that have been requested [under FOIA], and any updated versions it holds, unless it is satisfied that it is not appropriate to do so.

In short – and I take the wording above from ICO’s own guidance – if someone asks ICO for a dataset under FOIA, ICO must disclose it, put it on its website, and regularly update it (unless it is “not appropriate” to do so).

“Dataset” has a specific, and rather complex, meaning under POFA, and FOIA. However, the ICO’s own guidance nicely summarises the definition:

A dataset is a collection of factual information in electronic form to do with the services and functions of the authority that is neither the product of analysis or interpretation, nor an official statistic and has not been materially altered.

So, raw or basic data in a spreadsheet, relating to an authority’s functions, would constitute a dataset, and, if disclosed under FOIA, would trigger the authority’s general obligation to publish it on its website and regularly update it.

Yet, if one consults the ICO’s own disclosure log (its website page listing FOI responses it has made “that might be of wider public interest”), one sees multiple examples of disclosures of datasets under FOI (in fact, one can even filter the results to separate dataset disclosures from others – which is how I got my figure of 57 mentioned above) yet it appears that none of these has ever been updated, in line with section 19(2A)(a)(ii) of FOIA.

Some of the disclosures on there are of datasets which are indeed of public interest. Examples are: information on how many FOI etc requests ICO itself receives, and how timeously it handles them; information on the numbers and types of databreach reports ICO receives, and from which sectors; information on how many monetary penalties have been paid/recovered.

It’s important to note that these 57 disclosures are only those which ICO has chosen, because they are “of wider public interest”, to publish on its website. There may well be – no doubt are – others.

But if these dataset disclosures are, as declared, of wider public interest, I cannot see that ICO could readily claim that its reason for not updating them is because it is “not appropriate” to do so.

It may be that ICO feels, as some people have suggested, that the changes to FOIA wrought by POFA might not have met any pressing public demand for amended dataset-access provisions, and, therefore, compliance with the law is all a bit pointless. But there would be two problems with this, were it the case. Firstly, ICO is uniquely placed to comment on and lobby for changes to the law – if it thinks the dataset provisions are not worth being law, then why does it not say so? Secondly, as the statutory regulator for FOIA, and a public authority itself subject to FOIA, it is simply not open to it to disregard the law, even were it to think the law was not worth regarding.

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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