What John Edwards will inherit

The new Information Commissioner will have a lot on his plate. I’m going to focus very briefly on what is, objectively, a very small matter but which, to me, illustrates much about priorities within the ICO.

On 29 July I happened to notice an Information Tribunal decision which I thought was slightly odd, in that apparently both the Tribunal, and the Commissioner beforehand, had dealt with it under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 rather than the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, despite the subject matter (a tree inspection report) appearing to fall squarely under the latter’s ambit.

However, the decision notice appealed (referred to as FS5081345 in the Tribunal judgment), does not appear on the ICO’s searchable online database (in fact, no decisions relating to the public authority – the mighty Great Wyrley Parish Council – are listed). It’s unusual but certainly not unheard of for decision notices not to get uploaded (either by overlook, or – occasionally – for other, legal reasons) but in the past when I’ve asked for one of these, informally, it’s been provided by return.

So I used the ICO’s online Chat function to ask for a copy of the decision notice. However, I was told I had to submit a request in writing (of course I’d already done so – the Chat function is in writing, after all, but let’s not quibble). I said I was concerned that what was a simple request would get sucked up into the ICO’s own FOI processes, but the person on the Chat thought I would get a response within a couple of days.

Those who’ve stayed this far into the blogpost will be unsurprised to hear what happened next – my simple request got sucked into the ICO’s own FOI processes, and more than seven weeks on (more than three weeks beyond the statutory timescale for responding) I have still had no response, and no indication of why not, other than the pressure the FOI team is under.

And that last point is key: if the ICO’s own FOI caseworkers are under such pressure that they cannot deal with a very simple request within the legal timescale, nor update me in any meaningful way as to why, something has surely gone wrong.

At a recent NADPO webinar Dr Neil Bhatia spoke about his own difficulties with getting information out of the ICO through FOI. He (and I) were challenged by one of the other speakers on why we didn’t more regularly take formal action to force the issue. It was a fair point, and prompted me yesterday to ask the ICO for a formal decision under section 50 of the FOI Act (which means the ICO will have to issue an FOI decision notice on whether the ICO handled an FOI request for an FOI request in accordance with the law – and that sentence itself illustrates the ridiculousness of the situation).

This isn’t the only FOI request I have that the ICO is late responding to. I have one going back to May this year and another to June (albeit on rather more complex subjects). And I know that I and Dr Bhatia are not alone.

All the fine talk from the current Commissioner about forging international data protection accords, and encouraging “data driven innovation” can’t prevent a perception that her office seems increasingly to have left FOI regulation (and in some cases its own FOI compliance) behind. The right to access information is (part of) a fundamental right (just as is the right to data protection). If the ICO doesn’t want the role, is it time for a separate FOI Commissioner?

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under access to information, Environmental Information Regulations, Freedom of Information, Information Commissioner, Information Tribunal, rule of law

NADPO events

Just a very quick blogpost to highlight that, since earlier this year NADPO (of whom I am Chair), has been running monthly online webinars for members on the third Tuesday of each month (with a break in August).

The latest event will take place on Tuesday 21 September, with speakers Sophie Van der Zee on “The power of personalised deception detection – Is Trump lying or just wrong?” and Dr Neil Bhatia on “Enforcing the enforcer? – The ICO orders the ICO to respond to an FOI request!”

Further details are available on the NADPO website.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

DCMS admits reappointment of Elizabeth Denham was unlawful

A post by me on the Mishcon de Reya website.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

ICO calls for global cookie standards (but why not enforce the law?)

The outgoing UK Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, is calling on G7 countries to adopt her office’s new “vision” for websites and cookie consent.

Her challenge to fellow G7 data protection and privacy authorities has been issued at a virtual meeting taking place on 7 and 8 September, where they will be joined by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the World Economic Forum (WEF).

Denham says “There are nearly two billion websites out there taking account of the world’s privacy preferences. No single country can tackle this issue alone. That is why I am calling on my G7 colleagues to use our convening power. Together we can engage with technology firms and standards organisations to develop a coordinated approach to this challenge”.

What is not clear is whether her vision is, or can be, underpinned by legal provisions, or whether it will need to take the form of a non-enforceable set of standards and protocols. The proposal is said to mean that “web browsers, software applications and device settings [should] allow people to set lasting privacy preferences of their choosing, rather than having to do that through pop-ups every time they visit a website”. The most obvious way of doing this would be through a user’s own browser settings. However, previous attempts to introduce something similar – notably the “Do Not Track” protocol – foundered on the lack of adoption and the lack of legal enforceability.

Also unaddressed, at least in the advance communications, is why, if cookie compliance is a priority area for the Information Commissioner, there has been no enforcement action under the existing legal framework (which consists primarily of the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (or “PECR”)). Those current laws state that a website operator must seek consent for the placing of all cookies unless they are essential for the website to function. Although many website operators try hard to comply, there are countless examples of ones who don’t, but who suffer no penalty.

Denham says that “no single country can tackle this alone”, but it is not clear why such a single country can’t at least take steps towards tackling it on domestic grounds. It is open to her to take action against domestic website operators who flout the law, and there is a good argument that such action would do more to encourage proper compliance than will the promotion or adoption of non-binding international standards.

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under cookies, Data Protection, Information Commissioner, marketing, PECR

ICO ignores its own FOI investigators

In the past I recall a few cases where the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) had to adjudicate on its own compliance with the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). As a public authority, the ICO must comply with FOIA in the same way that all other public authorities must (fundamentally, by responding to a request within twenty working days). In a few cases, the ICO’s investigation of itself would even be slightly critical (along the lines of “you could have handled this a bit better”). But I have never, until now, seen a case like this one.

Extraordinarily, here we have a decision in which we see the ICO (as “the Commissioner”) berating itself (as “the ICO”) for…failing to reply to its own investigators. The notice gives the details:

On 18 May 2021, the complainant wrote to the ICO…and requested information…

The ICO acknowledged the request for information on 19 May 2021…

To date, a substantive response has not been issued…

The complainant contacted the Commissioner on 19 June 2021 to complain about the failure by the ICO to respond to his request…

On 5 July 2021, the Commissioner wrote to the ICO, reminding it of its responsibilities and asking it to provide a substantive response to the complainant within 10 working days…

Despite this intervention the ICO has failed to respond to the complainant.

As the notice says (indeed, as all such notices say), failure to comply may now result in the ICO making written certification of this fact to the High Court pursuant to section 54 of the Act and may be dealt with as a contempt of court. How on earth would this work though? As a matter of law, could a regulator certify its own non-compliance to the High Court in this way?

What a bizarre situation.

Leave a comment

Filed under access to information, Freedom of Information, Information Commissioner

Journalist has to seek pro bono support to enforce subject access request

My firm Mishcon de Reya is acting for John Pring, stalwart editor of Disability News Service, who has been seeking access to his personal data from DWP for more than a year. The ICO upheld his complaint but (see this blog, passim) said it wouldn’t take steps to require DWP to comply.

More here, and here.

As a result of the latest letter, and media coverage, ICO has said it is reopening the case.

Leave a comment

Filed under access to information, DWP, GDPR, human rights, Information Commissioner, subject access, UK GDPR

UK adequacy confirmed

To no great final surprise, the European Commission has adopted its adequacy decisions in respect of the UK.

Here’s a piece by me on the Mishcon de Reya website.

Leave a comment

Filed under adequacy, Data Protection, Europe, GDPR, international transfers, law enforcement

Recital 7 of the new SCCs – it’s a doozy

Post by me on the Mishcon de Reya website.

Everyone needs to understand the new model clauses for international transfers, and recital 7 is a red flag.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

New Model Clauses – a Mishcon podcast

My colleagues, partners Adam Rose and Ashley Winton, discuss the new European Commission Standard Contractual Clauses announced on 4 June 2021. I honestly can’t think of two better people to discuss what they mean.

Initial Reactions: New Standard Contractual Clauses (mishcon.com)

Leave a comment

Filed under adequacy, Brexit, consistency, Data Protection, data sharing, EDPB, Europe, GDPR, international transfers, Schrems II

ICO not compliant with post-Schrems II data protection law?

In which I finally receive a reply to my complaint about ICO’s Facebook page.

The issue of the transfer of personal data to the US has been the subject of much debate and much litigation. In 2015 the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) struck down one of the then key legal mechanisms (“Safe Harbor”) for doing so. And in 2020 the CJEU did so with its successor, “Privacy Shield”. Both cases were initiated by complaints by lawyer and activist Max Schrems, and focused on the transfer of data from the EU to the US by Facebook.

Put simply, European data protection law, in the form of the GDPR and (as we must now talk about the UK in separate terms) UK data protection law, in the form of UKGDPR, outlaw the transfer of personal data to the US (or any other third country), unless the level of protection the data would receive in the EU, or the UK, is “not undermined” (see Chapter V of and recital 101 of GDPR/UKGDPR).

In “Schrems II” – the 2020 case – the CJEU not only struck down Privacy Shield – it effectively also laid down rules which needed to be followed if the alternative mechanisms, for instance using “standard contractual clauses” were to be used for transfers of personal data. Following the judgment, the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) issued guidance in the form of FAQs, which recommended an “assessment, taking into account the circumstances of the transfers, and supplementary measures you could put in place”. The EDPB guidance was subsequently endorsed by the UK’s own Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO)

The EDPB has recommended that you must conduct a risk assessment as to whether SCCs provide enough protection within the local legal framework, whether the transfer is to the US or elsewhere

What struck me as odd in all this is that the ICO themselves have a Facebook page. Given that Facebook’s own data governance arrangements involve the transfer of EU and UK users’ data to the US, and given that ICO don’t just operate their page as a newsletter, but actively encourage users to comment and interact on their page, it seemed to me that ICO were enabling the transfer of personal data by Facebook to the US. But even further than that, another CJEU judgment has previously made clear that operators of corporate Facebook pages may well function as a controller under the GDPR/UKGDPR, where they set parameters on the page. The Wirtschaftsakademie case held that – in the case of someone operating a “fan page”

While the mere fact of making use of a social network such as Facebook does not make a Facebook user a controller jointly responsible for the processing of personal data by that network, it must be stated, on the other hand, that the administrator of a fan page hosted on Facebook, by creating such a page, gives Facebook the opportunity to place cookies on the computer or other device of a person visiting its fan page, whether or not that person has a Facebook account.

By extension, it seemed to me, the ICO were in this position with their page.

So I put the point to them. After four months, and some chasing, I received a reply which not only confirmed my understanding that they are, and accept that they are, a controller, but that, nearly a year on from the Schrems II decision, they have not finished reviewing their position and have not updated their privacy notice to reflect their controller status in respect of their Facebook processing. (They also say that their legal basis for processing is “Article 6 (1) (e) of UK GDPR, public task” because “as a regulator we have a responsibility to promote good practice and engage with the public at large about data protection issues via commonly used platforms”, but I’d observe that they fail to give any attention to the proportionality test that reliance on this condition requires, and fail to point to the justification in domestic law, as required by Article 6.)

What the ICO response doesn’t do is actually respond to me as a data subject in respect of my complaint nor explain how they are complying with the international data transfer provisions of Chapter V of the GDPR/UKGDPR, and whether they have conducted any sort of transfer impact assessment (one presumes not).

As I said in my original complaint to ICO, I am aware that I might be seen as being mischievous, and I’m also aware I might be seen as having walked ICO into a trap. Maybe I am, and maybe I have, but there’s also a very serious point to be made. The cost to UK business of the Schrems II decision has been enormous, in terms of the legal advice sought, the internal governance reviews and risk assessments undertaken, and the negotiating or novation of contracts. At the same time the business and legal uncertainty is significant, with many wondering about their exposure to legal claims but also (and especially) to regulatory enforcement. If, though, the regulator is not complying with the relevant law, ten months on from the judgment (and five months on from my raising it with them as a concern) then what are controllers meant to do? And where do they turn to for guidance on the regulatory approach?

THE ICO RESPONSE

Firstly, it may be helpful to explain that following the findings of the CJEU in Wirtschaftsakademie, we started a review of the transparency information we provide to visitors of the page. The review was delayed when Schrems11 decision was issued as we needed to consider the impact of the judgement on any transfer element to the US.

We agree that as the Facebook page administrator, we are processing personal data of the visitors of our page and therefore we are controllers for this information. We process the names of the users as they appear on their Facebook profiles and any personal data they may share through their comments on our posts or via messages to us. We process this information in reliance on Article 6 (1) (e) of UK GDPR, public task. We consider that, as a regulator we have a responsibility to promote good practice and engage with the public at large about data protection issues via commonly used platforms.

For the cookies and similar technologies, Facebook is responsible for setting the cookies, when you visit our Facebook page.

We also receive anonymous information from Facebook in the form of aggregate statistics of all those who visit our page, regardless of whether they have a Facebook account or not. In line with the findings of the CJEU in Wirtschaftsakademie we are joint controllers with Facebook for this information. We process this information under Article 6 (1) (e) as well. The Insights include information on page viewings, likes, sharing of posts, age range, the device used and how it was accessed and breakdown of demographics. All Insights are received from Facebook by the ICO in aggregate format. Our PN will updated shortly to reflect the above information.

Like other regulators, the ICO is currently reviewing its position on international transfers following the judgment in Schrems II. As part of that review, it will, amongst other things, consider the questions that you have raised about the ICO’s use of Facebook. The ICO intends to publish its guidance on how UK organisations should address the question of international transfers, in due course, and will act in accordance with its guidance. That work is still in progress, and it will be published in due course.

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under adequacy, data sharing, EDPB, facebook, GDPR, Information Commissioner, international transfers, privacy notice, privacy shield, safe harbor, Schrems II, UK GDPR