Reflections on the monetary penalty notice served on British Pregnancy Advisory Service

On 28 February the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) served a Monetary Penalty Notice (MPN), pursuant to powers under section 55A of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), on the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, in the sum of £200,000 (which would be reduced to £160,000 if promptly paid). The ICO’s new release explains

An ICO investigation found the charity didn’t realise its own website was storing the names, address, date of birth and telephone number of people who asked for a call back for advice on pregnancy issues. The personal data wasn’t stored securely and a vulnerability in the website’s code allowed [a] hacker to access the system and locate the information.

The hacker threatened to publish the names of the individuals whose details he had accessed, though that was prevented after the information was recovered by the police following an injunction obtained by the BPAS

The back story to this is that the hacker in question was subsequently jailed for 32 months for offences under the Computer Misuse Act 1990 (no doubt the prosecutors recognised that the criminal sanctions under the DPA were too weedy to bother with).

The section 55A DPA powers are triggered where there has been a qualifying serious contravention by a data controller of its obligations under section 4(4) to comply with the data protection principles in Schedule One. The most pertinent of these in the instant case (and in the large majority of ICO MPNs) was the seventh

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

which extends to the need to, when contracting with someone to process data on your behalf, require them to take equivalent security measures and evidence this contractual provision in writing. As the ICO’s MPN says

BPAS failed to take appropriate technical and organisational measures against the unauthorised processing of personal data stored on the BPAS website such as having a detailed specification about the parameters of the CMS to ensure that either the website did not store any personal data or alternatively, that effective and appropriate security measures were applied such as storing administrative passwords securely; ensuring stated standards of communication confidentiality were met; carrying out appropriate security testing on the website which would have alerted them to the vulnerabilities that were present or ensuring that the underlying software supporting the website was kept up to date

(Interestingly, the MPN also makes clear that there was a contravention of the fifth principle – which provides that “personal data processed for any purpose or purposes shall not be kept for longer than is necessary for that purpose or those purposes”. This was because “the call back details were kept for five years longer than was necessary for [BPAS’s] purposes”).

 The original crime was a particularly nasty one – the offender appears to have had an ideological, or at least personal, opposition to abortion in general, and the apparently very real threat to publish people’s details, given to BPAS in highly sensitive circumstances, is probably what elevated the BPAS contravention to a level which justifies such a high sum being served on a charity. However, BPAS have announced that they intend to appeal, and their press release about this is interesting. It suggests that the appeal will be not about the issuing of the MPN, but about its amount (section 55B(5) DPA permits appeals on either basis):

We accept that no hacker should have been able to steal our data but we are horrified by the scale of the fine

but it goes on to make the valid point that, by serving an MPN of this large amount, the ICO potentially gives the offender something that he wanted – to harm the charity:

 It is appalling that a hacker who acted on the basis of his opposition to abortion should see his actions rewarded in this way

This, though, seems to be a matter of ethics, rather than law, but it will be interesting to note if the argument makes it in some form into the grounds of appeal. More likely, if the challenge is to be made solely on the amount (under section 55B(5)(b)), focus will fall on to the suggestion that

This fine seems out of proportion when compared with those levelled against other organisations who were not themselves the victims of a crime

Of course, by a circular argument, the “fine” would not have been served, if the data controller had not, by its omissions, permitted itself to be a victim of the crime.

An extra frisson is caused when one considers the compelling argument by the solicitor-advocates for Scottish Borders Council, who successfully helped the latter win an appeal of an MPN last year. Although their argument – that MPNs were more correctly to be considered criminal, as opposed to civil, penalties – did not fall to be decided by the First-tier Tribunal, it did observe that

One general question hovering over this appeal is whether proceedings in respect of monetary penalties are “criminal” in nature. There are certainly enough indications, not least in the title of the amending statute, [the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008] to make an arguable case for them being so…We have concluded that there is no need for us to make any decision or pronouncement in the abstract; but there is a need for us to be vigilant to ensure that the proceedings are fair

If this line of argument continues to be developed – that recipients of MPNs are entitled to be afforded the equivalent rights to fairness, of hearing under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, afforded to those accused of crimes – then MPNs, and the circumstances and manner in which they are served, may be subject to a much greater level of scrutiny, and the cash-strapped ICO may find itself under even more pressure from legal challenges.

These issues may be aired, and possibly determined, in the forthcoming appeal on the Upper Tribunal of the MPN served on Christopher Niebel, and subsequently overturned by the First-tier Tribunal.

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Filed under Data Protection, human rights, Information Commissioner, Information Tribunal, monetary penalty notice

2 responses to “Reflections on the monetary penalty notice served on British Pregnancy Advisory Service

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