In the UK if you process personal data, you must comply in relevant part with your obligations under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA). This applies whether you are one of the world’s largest companies, or a sole-practitioner law firm, whether you’re a self-employed barrister, or the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland. All of those hyperlinks go to examples of enforcement action taken by the Information Commissioner (IC) and are part of a regime which currently enables the IC, as statutory regulator, to impose, in appropriate cases, a civil monetary penalty notice of up to £500,000 for a serious contravention of the DPA. And when the draft European Commission Data Protection Regulation is ultimately passed, a similar contravention could risk a penalty of €1,000,000 or 2% of turnover for very large organisations. It is in any data controller’s interest to take all offers of advice and support to avoid the risk of sanctions under the DPA.
However much the IC and his office are criticised for failure to act, or failure to target the right data controllers, there are some things for which he and his office deserve praise. By section 51(1) of the DPA he must “promote the following of good practice by data controllers” and, by section 51(7) he
may, with the consent of the data controller, assess any processing of personal data for the following of good practice and shall inform the data controller of the results of the assessment
This is a power to conduct consensual audits. (There is also a power under s41A to conduct audits without consent, on central government bodies, and the IC would like that power extended, but I digress). In my view, if you are an organisation processing large amounts of and/or sensitive data, you would be mad not to consider this (with a couple of reservations I will address below).
Any in-depth audit of a statutory part of an organisation’s business will not normally come cheap (ask one of the “Big Four” accountancy firms how much their services cost, and then realise why they are called the Big Four). The IC could, with the Secretary of State’s agreement, charge for this service but (probably with a mind to his section 51(1) duty) he doesn’t.
So, you can ask for a in-depth audit of your compliance with the DPA. You can learn what the IC feels is best practice, get advice on improving poor practice and build positive relationships between your organisation and the IC’s office, and, in the event of a future major data breach, it might well act as mitigation, because it would show at least that you are aware of your obligations and prepared to engage positively with the IC’s office. And all of this for free.
If you are a smaller organisation there is more informal approach by way of an Advisory Visit, again offered for free by the IC. Advisory visits involve a one-day visit and result in a short report.
The reservations I refer to earlier apply only really if your compliance is poor, and this is obvious to you. The IC, as a general approach, publishes summaries of his audits. What you really don’t want is for the IC to make a finding of “limited assurance” or “very limited assurance”. Additionally, although the IC will not publish any summary without your agreement, he will publish a note stating that an audit took place. Speculation being what it is, the fact that an organisation has not agreed to publication might not be viewed positively. So, if you suspect that your compliance is poor, my advice would be to get one of the specialist data protection advisory companies to audit you to. And appoint a good data protection officer (or pay more attention (and money) to him or her).