It’s our Right to Know, Mr ICO

On 29 August the Information Commisioner’s Office (ICO) served a monetary penalty notice (MPN) of £100,000 on Aberdeen City Council. MPNs can be served on a data controller under section 55A of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) for a serious contravention of the Act of a sort likely to cause serious damage or serious distress. In this instance, the ICO explained

sensitive information relating to social services involvement with several individuals [was] published online. The information included details relating to the care of vulnerable children.

The circumstances under which this happened were

a council employee accessed documents, including meeting minutes and detailed reports, from her home computer. A file transfer program installed on the machine automatically uploaded the documents to a website

Many people in the field of information rights have concerns that there is a significant lack of understanding on the part of many about the risk of inadvertently disclosing personal data on the web. In view of this, I though I would simply ask the ICO, and the Council, what website was involved, in order to inform my understanding. So I tweeted

What “website” were the files uploaded to?

I reminded the ICO and the Council on several occasions about this, and pointed out it was a valid request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) and Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOI(S)A), even though I had really only wanted a quick factual reply. The Council have asked me to contact them separately to make the FOI(S)A request, and I’m aware the Scottish Information Commissioner takes a different view on tweeted requests to her counterpart for the rest of the UK, so I’ve banged in a request at WhatDoTheyKnow. The ICO, by contrats, did treat my tweet as a valid request (although I got no acknowledgment of this, contrary to their good practice guidance) and responded yesterday on the twentieth working day, with a link to their disclosure log

Those who know me will be unsurprised to know that I don’t accept the refusal, and also unsurprised to know that, on International Right to Know Day 2013 I’ve submitted a crashingly pompous request for ICO to conduct an internal review. Here it follows, in all said crashing pomposity:

Please review your refusal to disclose information.

On 29 August you served a Monetary Penalty Notice on Aberdeen City Council

“after a council employee accessed documents, including meeting minutes and detailed reports, from her home computer. A file transfer program installed on the machine automatically uploaded the documents to a website, publishing sensitive information about several vulnerable children and their families, including details of alleged criminal offences”

I asked, on 30 August, “What ‘website’ were the files uploaded to?”

You have refused to disclose, claiming the exemption at section 44 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which provides an exemption “if disclosure [of the information] (otherwise than under this Act) by the public authority holding it…is prohibited by or under any enactment”. You say disclosure is prohibited, because “the information was provided to the ICO in confidence as part of our regulatory activities” and that the provisions of section 59(1) of the Data Protection Act 1998 forbid disclosure. Section 59(1) says

“No person who is or has been the Commissioner, a member of the Commissioner’s staff or an agent of the Commissioner shall disclose any information which—

(a)has been obtained by, or furnished to, the Commissioner under or for the purposes of the information Acts [of which FOIA is one],

(b)relates to an identified or identifiable individual or business, and

(c)is not at the time of the disclosure, and has not previously been, available to the public from other sources

unless the disclosure is made with lawful authority”

I am happy to concede that a) and b) are met here, but not c). This is because section 59(2) explains what “with lawful authority” means. Firstly, and largely as an aside, section 59(2)(a) says that a disclosure is made with lawful authority if

“the disclosure is made with the consent of the individual or of the person for the time being carrying on the business”

I am surprised you do not feel that, in your role as a public authority but also as the regulator for Freedom of Information, it would be prudent and transparent simply to ask the Council whether it consents. Nonetheless, on a strict reading of the law, I concede that you do not have an obligation to do so.

Secondly (and I note you do not even address this important provision), section 59(2)(e) says that disclosure is made with lawful authority if

“having regard to the rights and freedoms or legitimate interests of any person, the disclosure is necessary in the public interest”

I would argue that analysis of whether this provision permits disclosure requires a two-fold test. Firstly, is disclosure necessary in the public interest? Secondly, if it is, do the rights and freedoms or legitimate interests of any person militate against this public-interest disclosure?

On the first point, I am not aware of any direct authority on what “necessary” means in section 59(2)(e) of DPA, but I would argue that it imports the meaning adopted by leading European authorities. Thus, as per the high Court in Corporate Officer of the House of Commons v The Information Commissioner & Ors [2008] EWHC 1084 “‘necessary”…should reflect the meaning attributed to it by the European Court of Human Rights when justifying an interference with a recognised right, namely that there should be a pressing social need and that the interference was both proportionate as to means and fairly balanced as to ends”. It is my view that there is a pressing social need to recognise the risks of indavertent uploading to the internet, by public authorities and others, of sensitive personal data, especially when this is by automatic means. Other examples of recent incidents and enforcement action illustrate this. For instance, as your office is aware, there have been reports that a regional Citizens’ Advice Bureau has indavertently made available on the internet very large amounts of such data, probably because of a lack of technical knowledge or security which resulted in automatic caching by Google of numerous files https://informationrightsandwrongs.com/2013/09/24/citizens-advice-bureaucracy/. Also for instance, as you are aware, there have been many many examples of indavertent internet publishing of personal data in hidden cells in spreadsheets http://www.ico.org.uk/news/blog/2013/the-risk-of-revealing-too-much. There is a clear lack of public understanding of the risks of such indavertent disclosures, with a consequent risk to the privacy of individuals’ often highly sensitive personal data. Any information which the regulator of the DPA can disclose which informs and improves public understanding of these risks serves a pressing social need and makes the disclosure “necessary”.

On the second point, I simply fail to see what rights and freedoms or legitimate interests of any person can be engaged, let alone suffer a detriment by disclosing what public website the Council employee uploaded this to. If there are any, it would be helpful if your response to this Internal Review could address this. It may be that you would point to the information having been provided to you in confidence, but I similarly fail to see how that can be: was this an express obligation of confidence, or have you inferred it? In either case, I would question (per one the elements of the classic formulation for a cause of action in breach of confidence given by Megarry J in Coco v A.N.Clark (Engineers) Ltd [1969] R.P.C. 41) whether the information even has the necessary quality of confidence (this was a public website after all).

I hope you can reconsider your decision.

best wishes

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1 Comment

Filed under Confidentiality, Data Protection, FOISA, Freedom of Information, human rights, Information Commissioner, monetary penalty notice, transparency

One response to “It’s our Right to Know, Mr ICO

  1. Pingback: In which I ask the ICO for a Decision Notice | inforightsandwrongs

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