Medical records databreach – what will result?

Today’s Sunday Mirror reports that thousands of confidential medical records have apparently been stored outdoors in a car park in an industrial estate for months. The paper alleges that

DHL Healthcare, which provides services for more than 100 NHS trusts, left out documents reportedly containing patients’ names, addresses and details of their medical conditions.

The paperwork is also believed to contain security “key codes” that enable DHL ambulance drivers to open the front doors of patients’ homes so they can be taken to hospital for treatments such as dialysis and chemotherapy.

Although the article doesn’t mention it, I am sure the Information Commissioner (IC) will take a keen interest in this.

Of particular interest is the fact that this apparent breach is said to have involved an organisation, DHL Healthcare, which doesn’t provide healthcare services itself. According to its website it provides “logistics services for the healthcare industry”. I also note that it provides a records management service. It seems almost certain that it acts under contract to NHS bodies. As such, in the terminology of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), it is a “data processor” and an NHS body which instructs it is a “data controller”. Under the DPA, only the latter – the controller – is responsible for complying with the Act, and only the latter is liable to attract enforcement action for serious breaches of the DPA.

The seventh DPA data protection principle places an obligation on a data controller to ensure that

Appropriate technical and organisational measures shall be taken against unauthorised or unlawful processing of personal data and against accidental loss or destruction of, or damage to, personal data.

and where

Where processing of personal data is carried out by a data processor on behalf of a data controller, the data controller is not to be regarded as complying with the seventh principle unless—

(a)the processing is carried out under a contract—

(i)which is made or evidenced in writing, and

(ii)under which the data processor is to act only on instructions from the data controller, and

(b)the contract requires the data processor to comply with obligations equivalent to those imposed on a data controller by the seventh principle.

This means that where an NHS Trust contracts with – say – a records management service, it must enter into a written contract which demands that the contractor must do nothing other than what the contract says, and must have robust data security measures in place. If the contract does not say that then the NHS body is prima facie in breach of the DPA, and liable for any serious breach which might occur.

Thus, in 2012, Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust was “fined” (in reality, served with a s55A DPA Civil Monetary Penalty Notice) £325,000 by the IC after hard drives containing sensitive medical data ended up for sale on the internet. The IC said that the Trust

failed to choose a data processor providing sufficient guarantees in respect of the technical and organisational security measures governing the processing to be carried out, and take reasonable steps to ensure compliance with those measures.
Further, the processing was not carried out under a contract between the Trust and HIS (whether made or evidenced in writing) under which the data processor was to act only on instructions from the data controller, and which required HIS to comply with obligations equivalent to those imposed on a data controller by the Seventh Data Protection Principle

Any investigation into this latest incident will likely involve assessment of the nature of the contracts in place, and the extent to which data controllers contracting with DHL Healthcare took reasonable steps to ensure compliance by the contractor. However, it appears to be the case, under current law, that if the IC determines there was a robust contract in place, and the data controller took all reaosnable steps to ensure compliance, no enforcement action can ensue. This seems slightly strange, but the DPA (which gives effect to the European Data Protection Directive) does not allow the IC to take action against the contractor. (Of course the other party to the contract could take civil action of its own, but this would almost certainly be only for breach of contract).

The draft European Data Protection Regulation seeks to deal with this possible gap in the law. Draft Article 26 (read with Articles 24 and 30) provides that

If a processor processes personal data other than as instructed by the controller, the processor shall be considered to be a controller in respect of that processing and shall be subject to the rules on joint controllers

This apparently sensible and minor amendment might, though, have major implications for contractual arrangements to process data. If a data processor becomes (jointly) liable for breaches it is likely to assess risk in a much different way when entering into a contract. “Traditional” data controllers need to be alive to the potential financial implications of this.

One final note. Under current law, a data controller is

a person who determines the purposes for which and the manner in which any personal data are, or are to be, processed

Could it be argued that, even now, when a contractor diverges from the terms of a contract, and decides to process data in a different way, they are in fact determining the purposes in a way which could potentially make them a controller? I would be interested to know if this has ever been argued.

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Filed under Breach Notification, Data Protection, enforcement, Information Commissioner, monetary penalty notice

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