Mandatory breach reporting and the public interest

In May of this year the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) (Amendment) Regulations 2011 amended the existing Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (the “PECR”).

The regulations apply to different bodies in different circumstances (for instance those parts relating to cookies, which apply effectively to anyone using cookies on their website). However, a key amendment applies to specifically to providers of a public electronic communications service (broadly, telecoms companies and internet service providers): regulation 5A(2) of the PECR now says

If a personal data breach occurs, the service provider shall, without undue delay, notify that breach to the Information Commissioner.

This is the first appearance in domestic law of a mandatory requirement to inform the Information Commissioner (IC) of a data breach. “Data breach” itself  is defined as

a breach of security leading to the accidental or unlawful destruction, loss, alteration, unauthorised disclosure of, or access to, personal data transmitted, stored or otherwise processed in connection with the provision of a public electronic communications service

While a PECR data breach is not, expressly, a breach of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) I cannot imagine circumstances in which a PECR breach would not also involve a breach of the provisions of the DPA (and – specifically and primarily – the seventh data protection principle). How the IC responds to notifications made to him under regulation 5A(2) will, therefore, be of interest to all data controllers.

This is because the imminent new European data protection instrument (either a new Directive or a Regulation) is likely to introduce mandatory data breach reporting into the Data Protection laws. It is not yet clear how far the requirement would extend. In an interview on 16 November with The Washington Post the EU Justice Commissioner, Vivian Reding, said

…we will now have such rules on notification for all sectors so citizens will know when their data has been breached, whether by criminal intent, accidental or other circumstances. We already have this rule for telecom companies but not for other sectors such as e-banking services, private-sector medical records and online shopping. We will extend the telecom rules to the Internet.

So will mandatory notification apply to “all sectors” or just (in addition to telcos/ISPs) “e-banking services, private-sector medical records and online shopping”? We’ll have to wait and see.

I made a Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) request to the IC asking how many mandatory notifications had been made to this office since the amended PECR came into effect, and by whom and whether the companies involved had informed data subjects of the breach. The IC’s response is that 76 notifications have been made (they don’t say, but I presume this is to the 3 November, the date of my request) and in 64 of these cases data subjects were also informed. By way of explanation for the latter figure the IC says

…it is not a requirement of the regulations for providers to tell the ICO whether or not they have notified data subjects. The service providers only have to inform subscribers where ‘the personal data breach is likely to adversely affect the personal data or privacy of a subscriber or user’. If that is the case they have to ‘without undue delay, notify that breach to the subscriber or user concerned.’

When it comes to disclosing the names of the companies involved, however, the IC is scratching his head. He has identified (at least this is how I read his response) that disclosing this information would prejudice the commercial interests of those companies, and that, therefore, section 43 of FOIA is engaged. Having decided this, however, he has to consider (under section 2(2)(b) of FOIA) whether

in all the circumstances of the case, the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information

Section 10(3)(b) of FOIA allows authorities to extend the time for compliance with a request (from 20 working days) where they need to consider the public interest test. FOIA itslef unhelpfully only says that it can be extended by “such time as is reasonable in the circumstances” but the IC himself advises that the maximum time that should be taken, in total, is 40 working days. His office has advised me that this applies with my request for names of companies, and it

…may take up to an additional 20 working days to take this decision.  We therefore aim to provide you with a response to this part of your request for information by 23 December 2011

This is, of course, completely acceptable, and I’ll update this post when I get the response, but three things occur to me.

First, if or when mandatory breach notification is extended to other organisations, they will need to be aware that people may request information about such breaches from the IC, and that there is a clear public interest in such information.

Second, if the IC is wrestling with the public interest factors this is clearly a finely-balanced point, and if he comes down against disclosure then this might be a case worth appealing.

Third, surely the IC anticipated that he would get such requests? I’m surprised he hadn’t already considered this public interest point.



1 Comment

Filed under Breach Notification, Data Protection, Freedom of Information, PECR, Privacy

One response to “Mandatory breach reporting and the public interest

  1. In response to your third point, the Information Commissioner appears to be remarkably unworldly about what people might ask them about. Why do they offer their staff the opportunity to do the ISEB in DP, but not FOI as revealed in a recent WDTK request? Because they don’t take FOI seriously as an organisation, even if they do (sometimes) take it seriously as a regulator.

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