“All right, tell me. What’s the irony?”

“What’s wrong, Oscar? – This system is wrong”

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ICO tells ICO off for terrible FOI compliance

As any fule kno, a public authority has to comply with a Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) request within 20 working days. Where the authority fails to do so, the requester can ask the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to issue a decision notice.

And so, here we have a newly published decision where the ICO is telling itself that it has overshot the twenty working day limit by almost seven months:

“it is clear that, in failing to issue a full response to this request within 20 working days, the ICO has breached section 10 of the FOIA.”

Unsurprisingly, the ICO doesn’t appear to be taking enforcement action against itself. Surprisingly, though, there seems to be no indication in the notice itself that this is an extraordinary, and extraordinarily poor, state of affairs.

I’d like to imagine this is single aberration, but it isn’t. On 12 March this year I also made a FOIA request to ICO, and I am still to get a (complete) answer. And only a couple of months ago ICO again had to rule against itself, after it took six months to respond to a request.

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ICO’s reasons for reducing BA’s fine – COVID not significant factor

Some media outlets who should know better have suggested COVID-19’s economic impact led to the ICO reducing its intended £183m fine for British Airways to the final £20m. In this piece on the Mishcon site, I point out that the initial figure was dropped after (and quite probably because of) strong representations from BA’s lawyers about the ICO’s reliance on a draft internal procedure for setting fine amounts.

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Something is rotten in the state of FOI

By law, Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) requests must be responded to within 20 working days.

FOIA is regulated and (should be) enforced by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

As a public authority the ICO must also respond to FOIA requests.

So the ICO regulates (and should enforce) its own compliance with FOIA.

On 9 March 2020 I made a FOIA request to ICO, asking for the number of, and the recipients of “reprimands” issued by the ICO under Article 58(2)(b) of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

I didn’t receive a response within 20 working days (I did receive an acknowledgment of receipt on 31 March). However, I understood, and understand, the impact that COVID-19 has had on the ICO, so I realised and accepted that there might be a slight delay.

On 12 June I chased for a response.

On 16 June I was told the ICO was “working on a response”.

On 31 July I chased for a response.

On 12 August I received an apology and on 19 August a further email telling me I should receive a response by 28 August.

On 28 August I received some information: I was told how many Article 58 reprimands have been issued, but not who the recipients were. The latter would follow “shortly” as they were still “considering it”.

Despite chasing again, twice, I have heard nothing more.

So, nearly seven months after I made my FOIA request, and nearly half a year late, I still have no response from the office which is meant to regulate the law.

I really didn’t want to push this request too much. This period of pandemic has been beyond any normality, and I was very aware of the pressures the ICO must be under. But this was not a difficult request to deal with, in terms of finding the information (in fact, I would imagine they could find it in minutes). What presumably was difficult was the decision about whether to name and therefore shame the recipients of reprimands. I cannot see how COVID will have adversely affected the ability to take such a decision.

Ultimately, though, with an approach such as this from the regulator, one is left wondering – what’s the point in making FOIA requests?

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.

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Tony Abbott hacking and data protection offences

The story about the hacking of Tony Abbott’s travel and other personal details, after he foolishly posted a picture of a flight boarding pass on social media, is both amusing and salutary (salutary for Abbott, and, I would suggest, Qantas and any other airline which prints boarding passes with similar details). What is also interesting to consider, is whether, if this hacking had occurred in the UK, it might have constituted an offence under data protection law.

Under section 170(1)(a) and 170(1)(c) of the Data Protection Act 2018 it is an offence for a person knowingly or recklessly…to obtain or disclose personal data without the consent of the controller, and also an offence for a person knowingly or recklessly…after obtaining personal data, to retain it without the consent of the person who was the controller in relation to the personal data when it was obtained.

There is at least an argument that this would have been a knowing obtaining of personal data without the consent of the controller (whether that controller was Qantas, or Abbott himself).

There are defences to both of these where the person can prove that the obtaining, disclosure, retaining etc. was in the particular circumstances, justified as being in the public interest.

Also, and this may be engaged here, it is a defence if the person acted for journalistic purposes, with a view to the publication by a person of any journalistic, academic, artistic or literary material, and in the reasonable belief that in the particular circumstances the obtaining, disclosing, retaining etc. was justified as being in the public interest. One does not have to be a paid journalist, or journalist by trade, to rely on this defence.

Prosecution in both cases may only be brought by the Information Commissioner, or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions. The offences are triable either way, and punishable by an unlimited fine.

I write all this not to condemn the “hacker”, nor to condone Abbott. However, it is worth remembering that similar hacking, in the UK at least, is not without its risks.

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.

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An Uber-reaction in The Times

“Uber gives police private data on drivers and passengers” announces The Times(£) this morning.

In this post, much to my surprise (I have never taken an Uber, and don’t intend to – I don’t like their business model), I come to the defence of Uber.

A closer read of the Times piece reveals that what is being referred to, in documents filed with the High Court, in proceedings regarding TfL’s refusal to renew Uber’s licence, is requests to Uber from the police to disclose personal data for the purposes of the prevention and detection of crime or the apprehension or prosecution of offenders.

Such requests are commonly made to thousands of public authorities and private companies. They used to be known in data protection and police circles as “section 29 requests”, after the relevant section of the now-repealed Data Protection Act 1998. The term was a bit misleading: section 29, now replaced effectively by paragraph 2 of Schedule 2 to the Data Protection Act 2018, has the effect of disapplying the provisions of data protection law which would otherwise prevent the disclosure of personal data to the police (or others), and where not disclosing would be likely to prejudice the purposes of the prevention and detection of crime or the apprehension or prosecution of offenders. This is a necessary provision of data protection law, and provided that (as with all provisions) it is applied correctly and proportionately, it works very well: it gives controller the power to disclose personal data to the police where it is necessary for criminal justice.

If Uber are dealing with police requests appropriately, it is for the public good that personal data which assists the police to investigate drug transporting and human trafficking is made available to them.

In fact, I strongly suspect that The Times will receive such requests from the police. When the requests are related to the paper’s journalistic activities they are probably, and probably rightfully, refused, but they may well get requests in respect of their employees’ data, and I would be very surprised if they don’t sometimes – as a responsible company – comply with these.

Transport for London certainly receives such requests. Indeed, as a public authority, under its transparency measures, it has habitually made statistics on this public. The most recent publication I can find shows that 2012 to 2017 TfL received an average of approximately 10,000 requests each year.

Will The Times now report that TfL is handing over to the police thousands of pieces of intelligence on members of the public each year?

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GDPR’s scope – does it extend to China?

The answer to the question in the title is, of course, “yes”, if the processing in question is of personal data of data subjects in the EU, by a controller outside the EU, and related to the monitoring of data subjects’ behaviour as far as their behaviour takes place within the Union.

So, the activities of Zhenhua Data, in compiling its Overseas Key Individual Database, as described in The Mail, will be squarely within the scope of Article 3(2) of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR):

Boris Johnson and the Queen are among 40,000 Britons listed on a database compiled by a Chinese tech firm with reported links to Beijing’s military and intelligence networks, it can be disclosed.

Files on senior British politicians including the Prime Minister, members of the Royal Family, UK military officers and their families, and religious leaders are currently being stored by Zhenhua Data, a technology company based in Shenzhen, China as part of a ‘global mass surveillance system on an unprecedented scale’.

It seems difficult to imagine that the processing can possibly comply with GDPR. Where is the Article 14 notice? What is the Article 6 legal basis? Or the Article 9 exception to the general prohibition on processing special categories of data? Or the Article 30 record of processing activities? Or…or…or…?

But here’s the problem with any legislative attempt to extend the scope of laws beyond geographical and jurisdictional borders, to the activities of those who are not consulted, nor assigned rights, nor (in all likelihood) bothered: how does one enforce those laws? In 2018 (oh those heady early GDPR days!) the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) was reported to have told the Washington Post that its practice of only allowing those who paid for its premium subscription to refuse tracking cookies was unlawful. How many figs the WaPo gave is evidenced by a glance at its current subscription model:

(i.e. it appears to have changed nothing.)

Indeed, as the ICO said at the time

We hope that the Washington Post will heed our advice, but if they choose not to, there is nothing more we can do in relation to this matter

If there was nothing ICO could do against a newspaper outside the jurisdiction, consider how unrealistic is the idea that it might enforce against a Chinese company rumoured to work for the Chinese military, and which is said to view its mission as ‘using big data for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”‘.

The logical question, though, which arises is this – in the absence of an effective regulatory scheme to enforce them what exactly is the point of GDPR’s (or even more trenchantly, the UK GDPR’s) extra-territorial scope provisions?

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.

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If ICO won’t regulate the law, it must reboot itself

The exercise of the right of (subject) access under Article 15 of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is the exercise of a fundamental right to be aware of and verify the lawfulness of the processing of personal data about oneself.

That this is a fundamental right is emphasised by the range of enforcement powers available to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), against those controllers who fail to comply with their obligations in response to an access request. These include the power to serve administrative fines to a maximum amount of €20m, but, more prosaically, the power to order the controller to comply with the data subject’s requests to exercise his or her rights. This, surely, is a basic function of the ICO – the sort of regulatory action which underlines its existence. This, much more than operating regulatory sandboxes, or publishing normative policy papers, is surely what the ICO is fundamentally there to do.

Yet read this, a letter shown to me recently which was sent by ICO to someone complaining about the handling of an access request:

 

Dear [data subject],

Further to my recent correspondence, I write regarding the way in which [a London Borough] (The Council) has handled your subject access request.

I have contacted the Council and from the evidence they have provided to me, as stated before, it appears that they have infringed your right to access under the GDPR by failing to comply with your SAR request. However, it does not appear as though they are willing to provide you with any further information and we have informed them of our dissatisfaction with this situation.

It is a requirement under the Data protection Act 2018 that we investigate cases to the ‘extent appropriate’ and after lengthy correspondence with the Council, it appears they are no longer willing co-operate with us to provide this information. Therefore, you may have better results if you seek independent legal advice regarding the matters raised in this particular case.

Here we have the ICO telling a data subject that it will not take action against a public authority data controller which has infringed her rights by failing to comply with an access request. Instead, the requester must seek her own legal advice (almost inevitably at her own significant cost).

Other controllers might look at this and wonder whether they should bother complying with the law, if no sanction arises for failing to do so. And other data subjects might look at it and wonder what is the point in exercising their rights, if the regulator will not enforce them.

This is the most stark single example in a collection of increasing evidence that the ICO is failing to perform its basic tasks of regulation and enforcement.

It is just one data subject, exercising her right. But it is a right which underpins data protection law: if you don’t know and can’t find out what information an organisation has about you, then your ability to exercise other rights is stopped short.

The ICO should reboot itself. It should, before and above all else, perform its first statutory duty – to monitor and enforce the application of the GDPR.

I don’t understand why it does not want to do so.

[P.S. I think the situation described here is different, although of the same species, to situations where ICO finds likely non-compliance but declines to take punitive action – such as a monetary penalty. Here, there is a simple corrective regulatory power available – an enforcement notice (essentially a “steps order”) under section 148 Data Protection Act 2018.]

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.

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ICO – fines, what fines?

No surprise…but ICO has only issued four notices of intent to serve a fine since GDPR came into application (and one fine)

I made a quick Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request a few weeks ago to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), asking

since 25 May 2018
1) how many notices of intent have been given under paragraph 2(1) of schedule 16 to the Data Protection Act 2018?
2) How many notices of intent given under 1) have not resulted in a monetary penalty notice being given (after the period of 6 months specified in paragraph 2(2) of the same schedule to same Act)?

I have now received (4 September) received a response, which says that four notices of intent only have been issued in that time. Three of those are well known: one was in respect of Doorstep Dispensaree (who have since received an actual fine – the only one issued under GDPR – of £275,000); two are in respect of British Airways and of Marriott Inc., which have become long-running, uncompleted sagas; the identity of the recipient of the final one is not known at the time of writing.

The contrast with some other European data protection authorities is stark: in Spain, around 120 fines have been issued in the same time; in Italy, 26; in Germany (which has separate authorities for its individual regions), 26 also.

Once again, questions must be asked about whether the aim of the legislator, in passing GDPR, to homogenise data protection law across the EU, has been anywhere near achieved.

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.

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Met – FOI requester’s focus on police misconduct was a “vexatiousness” factor

I regularly criticise the Information Commissioner’s Office on this blog. But credit where it’s due. They have upheld a complaint about the Met Police’s handling of a Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) request, in which the Met, remarkably, had argued that the request for information about police officers stopping people without cause and asking for their ID was vexatious (per section 14(1) of FOIA).

Clearly, there was some history to the request and the requester, and in line with authority, the Met were entitled to take this into account at arriving at their (now overturned) decision. But, as the decision notice points out, one of the factors which they said pointed towards vexatiousness was this:

Complainant’s focus upon police misconduct and/or related issues

I’ll say that again

Complainant’s focus upon police misconduct and/or related issues

Yes, the Met did indeed argue that a focus by a FOIA requester on police misconduct was a factor which led them to believe there was a pattern of behaviour which made this request (about stopping people without cause and asking for their ID) vexatious.

So well done ICO for dismissing that argument.

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.

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