No direct liability under GDPR for representatives, says EDPB

I have a new post on the Mishcon de Reya website, drawing attention to a change from draft to agreed EDPB guidance which might make being a GDPR representative much more attractive.

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The most boring blogpost on this blog?

Although GDPR, and the Data Protection Act 2018 (DPA18), took effect from 25 May 2018, it has been notable that the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has continued to exercise its enforcement powers under the prior law. There is no problem with this, and it is only to be expected, given that regulatory investigations can take some time. The DPA18 contains transitional provisions which mean that certain sections of the Data Protection Act 1998 continue to have effect, despite its general repeal. This is the reason, for instance, why the ICO could serve its recent enforcement notice on Hudson Bay Finance Ltd using the powers in section 40 of the 1998 – paragraph 33 of Schedule 20 to the DPA18 provides that section 40 of the 1998 Act continues to apply if the ICO is satisfied that the controller contravened the old data protection principles before the rest of the 1998 Act was repealed.

However, what is noticeable in the Hudson Bay Finance Ltd enforcement notice is that it says that it was prompted by a request for assessment by the complainant, apparently made on 21 September 2018, purportedly made under section 42 of the 1998 Act. I say “purportedly” because the transitional provisions in Schedule 20 of DPA18 require the ICO to consider a request for assessment made before 25 May 2018, but in all other respects, section 42 is repealed. Accordingly, as a matter of law, a data subject can (after 25 May 2018) no longer exercise their right to request an assessment under section 42 of the 1998 Act.

This is all rather academic, because it appears to me that the ICO has discretion – even if it does not have an obligation – to consider a complaint by a data subject relating to compliance with the 1998 Act. And ICO clearly (as described above) has the power still to take enforcement action for contraventions of the 1998 Act. But no one ever told me I can’t use my blog to make arid academic points.

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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Blagging as academic research

A white paper on GDPR subject access rights, presented at the Blackhat USA 2019 conference, got a lot of UK media coverage recently. Less discussion was had, however, about whether the research raised questions about the ethics and legality of “blagging”.

The paper, by Oxford University DPhil researcher James Pavur and Casey Knerr, talked of “Using Privacy Laws to Steal Identities” and describes Pavur’s attempts to acquire another person’s (Knerr’s) data, by purporting to be that person and pretending to exercise their access rights under Article 15 of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). It should be emphasised that Knerr was fully acquiescent in the exercise.

Pavur and Knerr’s paper has a section entitled “Ethical and legal concerns” but what it notably fails to address is the fact that deliberately obtaining personal data without the consent of the controller is potentially a criminal offence under UK law.

Since 1998 it has been an offence to deliberately obtain personal data by deception, with defences available where the obtaining was, for instance, justified as being in the public interest. The Data Protection Act 2018 introduces, at section 170, a new defence where the obtaining is for academic purposes, with a view to publication and where the person doing the obtaining reasonably believes that it was justified in the public interest. Previously, this defence was only available where the obtaining was for the “special purposes” of journalism, literature or art.

It would certainly appear that Pavur obtained some of the data without the consent of the controller (the controller cannot properly be said to have consented to its disclosure if it was effected by deception – indeed, such is the very nature of “blagging”), but it also appears that the obtaining was done for academic purposes and with a view to publication and (it is likely) in the reasonable belief that the obtaining was justified in the public interest.

However, one would expect that prior to conducting the research, some analysis of the legal framework would have revealed the risk of an offence being committed, and that, if this analysis had been undertaken, it would have made its way into the paper. Its absence makes the publicity given to the paper by Simon McDougall, of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), rather surprising (McDougall initially mistakenly thought the paper was by the BBC’s Leo Kelion). Because although Pavur (and Knell) could almost certainly fall back on the “academic purposes” defence to the section 170 offence, a fear I have is that others might follow their example, and not have the same defence. Another fear is that an exercise like this (which highlights risks and issues with which controllers have wrestled for years, as Tim Turner points out in his excellent blogpost on the subject) might have the effect of controllers becoming even more keen to demand excessive identification credentials for requesters, without considering – as they must – the proportionality of doing so.

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 change to guidance on Subject Access Request time limits

I have a post on the Mishcon de Reya website, on an odd, but potentially very significant, change of position by the Information Commissioner’s Office, when it comes to calculating GDPR time limits for data subject requests.

ICO change to guidance on Subject Access Request time limits

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Open by Design, Closed by Default?

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) have published their new access to information strategy. Something strikes me about their “Goal #2”:

Goal #2: Providing excellent customer service to individuals making requests to us and lead by example in fulfilling our own statutory functions

The thing strikes me is that, bizarrely, they seem to have misunderstood the goal they’ve set themselves (I nearly referred to it as their “own goal”, which has a bit of a ring about it). They say

We have a varied range of individuals who request an independent review from us and a diverse range of public authorities within our jurisdiction from large central government departments to very small parish councils.

What they don’t say is “we are a public authority, subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and have to comply with its timescales, and promote observance of it by example”.

And, unfortunately, there is much evidence recently of a failure to do this.

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 still breaching law it’s meant to oversee

A month ago I pointed out some rather concerning  failings by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in its own compliance with Freedom of Information (FOI) law. At the time, the ICO press office told me

We acknowledge that we have fallen short of expectations in these instances but can confirm that the responses to both requests will be issued soon

It’s with some incredulity, therefore, that I see that one of the requests has still not been responded to, despite a further twenty working days having elapsed, and despite the (even greater) incredulity of the requester:

You have missed your own deadline, months after you should have answered this request. Your inability to answer a simple FOI promptly would be a disgrace if you were a local council. The fact that you are the FOI regulator makes your handling of my request a scandal.

I am utterly powerless here – I cannot complain to the regulator about your contempt for FOI because you are supposed to be the organisation I would complain to. Do you have no shame at all? No self respect?

What am I supposed to do now?

The other request I highlighted at the time has had a response, albeit one that was cursory, to say the best, and which is now the subject of a request for internal review.

My own request for the ICO’s compliance figures is now the subject of a formal complaint (with a request for a decision notice under section 50 of the FOI Act), although I am told that there will be, er, a delay in getting to it.

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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Boris Johnson and GDPR

Might there have been a breach of data protection law in the recording, apparently by neighbours, of incidents at Boris Johnson’s home, and the passing of the recording to the media and the police? Almost certainly not.

(In this post I would like to avoid, as far as possible, broader ethical questions, and I will restrict any political observations to this: if Johnson becomes leader of the Conservative Party, and therefore prime minister, the two main UK political parties will be being led by people less fit to hold the role than at any time in my lifetime.)

In general, processing of personal data done for one’s own domestic purposes avoids the need for compliance with data protection law: Article 2(2)(c) of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – which of course provides the overarching statutory framework for most processing of personal data – says that the GDPR itself “does not apply to the processing of personal data…by a natural person in the course of a purely personal or household activity”. This is understandable: were there not such a carve-out, one’s children might, say, try to sue one for unlawful processing of their pocket-money data.

However, that word “purely” is key in Article 2. Processing which is not in the course of a “purely” domestic activity, such as, say, passing a recording of an altercation involving one’s neighbours to the media and the police, will be within GDPR’s scope.

So if GDPR is likely to apply, what are the considerations?

Firstly, passing information to the police about an altercation involving one’s neighbours is straightforward: GDPR permits processing which is necessary for the performance of a task carried out in the public interest (Article 6(1)(e)) and where the processing is necessary for the purposes of someone’s legitimate interests (provided that such interests are not overridden by the rights of the data subject) (Article 6(1)(f)).

But what of passing such information to the media? Well, here, the very broad exemption for the purposes of journalism will apply (even though the neighbours who are reported to have passed the information to the media are not, one assumes, journalists as such). GDPR requires members states to reconcile the right to the protection of personal data with the right to freedom of expression and information, including processing for journalistic purposes, and this obligation is given effect in UK law by paragraph 26 of Schedule 2 to the Data Protection Act 2018. This provides that the GDPR provisions (for the most part) do not apply to processing of personal data where it

is being carried out with a view to the publication by a person of journalistic, academic, artistic or literary material, and…the controller reasonably believes that the publication of the material would be in the public interest [and] the controller reasonably believes that the application of [the GDPR provisions] would be incompatible with the… purposes [of journalism].

Here, the controller is not just going to be the journalist or media outlet to whom the information was passed, but it is also likely to be the non-journalist person who actually passes the information (provides that the latter passes it with a view to its publication and does so under a reasonable belief that such publication would be in the public interest).

The equivalent exemption in the prior law (the Data Protection Act 1998) was similar, but, notably, applied to processing which was only carried for the purposes of journalism (or its statutory bedfellows – literature and art). The absence of the word “only” in the 2018 Act arguably greatly extends the exemption, or at least removes ambiguity (there was never any notable example of action being taken under the prior law against the media for processing which was alleged to be unlawful and which was for more than one purposes (i.e. not solely for the purposes of journalism)).

It seems almost certain, then, that Johnson’s non-journalist neighbours could avail themselves of the “journalism” exemption in data protection law. As could anyone who processes personal data with a view to its publication and who reasonably believes such publication is in the public interest: we should prepare to see this defence aired frequently over the coming years. Whether the exemption is too broad is another question.

Because of the breadth of the journalism exemption in data protection law, actions are sometimes more likely to be brought in the tort of misuse of private information (see, for example, Cliff Richard v BBC, and Ali v Channel 5). Whether such a claim might be available in this case is also another question, and not one for this blog.

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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Information Tribunal rejects data subject appeals under new Data Protection Act

The Information Tribunal has recently heard the first applications under the Data Protection Act 2018 for orders regarding the Information Commissioner’s handling of data protection complaints. As I write on the Mishcon de Reya website, the Tribunal has peremptorily dismissed them.

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ICO breaching the law it’s meant to oversee

This may be complete coincidence, but on the WhatDoTheyKnow website, there are two Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, on similar themes, which requesters have made to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), to which – at the time of writing – the ICO appears simply to be failing to respond, way beyond the statutory timescale of 20 working days.

Both requests are about procurement of external consultants. In the first, the requester asked

Please disclose all current agreements for provision of legal services by outside bodies such as barristers chambers, law firms etc. This should include the rates of pay agreed.

The request was made on the 19th February and more than three months on, has simply had no response (other than an automated acknowledgment).

In the second the (different) requester asked

how many times the Information Commissioner’s Office has engaged consultants, companies or other specialists to deliver services to the ICO without putting the work out to tender or otherwise advertising the opportunity externally

That request was made on the 26th February and, barring some holding responses, which seem to have dried up, it has had no substantive response.

The failure to respond is concerning, and the failure to communicate inexplicable. One wonders where the reluctance comes from.

My own recent experience of making FOI requests to them indicates a less-than-ideal level of compliance with the laws the ICO is meant to regulate. However, when, some time ago, I asked the ICO for compliance figures, they refused to disclose them, saying they would be published soon. Yet approximately six months on they still haven’t done so (which is not in compliance with the best-practice requirements of the section 45 FOI Code of Practice).

I offered the ICO an invitation to comment on this blogpost, and in response a spokesperson said: “We aim to resolve 95% of information requests within the statutory deadline, unless we have sought an extension. We acknowledge that we have fallen short of expectations in these instances but can confirm that the responses to both requests will be issued soon.” No comment was made on the wider point about compliance, and publication of compliance statistics. (I would also make the observation that it’s rather surprising ICO only aims to respond to 95% of requests within the statutory deadline – surely they would (and should) aim to respond to 100% within the timeframe mandated by the law?)

I’ve previously expressed concern about the ICO’s unwillingness to take enforcement action against recalcitrant, if not contemptuous, public authorities for poor FOI compliance. Elizabeth Denham has recently (and unsuccessfully) called for an extension of FOI law, saying

Part of my job is to make sure that the legislation my office regulates fulfils its objectives and remains relevant. When it does not, I will speak out

Will she also speak out about the fact that her office is not itself complying with the legislation it regulates?

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

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ICO – HMRC must delete 5 million voice records

I have a piece on the Mishcon de Reya website, on news that the ICO has required HMRC to delete 5 million unlawfully gathered Voice ID records.

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