Letting the data protection genie out of the bottle

Ireland police tweet a picture of a distinctive car they pulled over…social media speculates as to the owner…police warn of data protection implications…

 Recital 26 to the 1995 European data protection Directive explains that

the principles of protection must apply to any information concerning an identified or identifiable person [and] to determine whether a person is identifiable, account should be taken of all the means likely reasonably to be used either by the controller or by any other person to identify the said person

The Directive was transposed into Irish domestic law by amendments to the Data Protection Act 1988 which defines personal data as

data relating to a living individual who is or can be identified either from the data or from the data in conjunction with other information that is in, or is likely to come into, the possession of the data controller

What this means is that, as the Ireland Data Protection Commissioner says

There are different ways in which an individual can be considered ‘identifiable’.  A person’s full name is an obvious likely identifier.  But a person can also be identifiable from other information, including a combination of identification elements

With that in mind it was instructive to note a brief exchange on Twitter this morning involving the An Garda Síochána official account which is set up to provide “information on traffic and major events”. The exchange began with a tweet containing a photograph of a car pulled over for having “overly tinted windows”, and this was followed by a couple of tweets from another twitter user  alluding to the identity of the driver of the car. Finally, the Garda tweeted

Please do not post name, data protection issues, we want to raise awareness, we do not want to cause embarrassment

Some of the tweets have since been deleted, but @anyabike helpfully took a screengrab, which I have edited to remove any identifying information (except the picture of the car, which is still on the Garda timeline):


This is interesting (well, to me at least) because the concerns from the Garda about data protection should perhaps more properly have been addressed at themselves, for tweeting the picture in the first place. I have previously written about the practice of emanations of the state using social media to “shame” people, or to pursue campaigns and the fact that this almost inevitably engages data protection and human rights laws. The fact that the Garda published a picture from which an individual could be identified (either from that data or from that data in conjunction with other information in their possession) meant that they were, by definition, processing personal data (uploading a picture to the internet is certainly “processing”). And it is at least arguable that, in doing so, they should have been alive to the possibility of third parties being able to identify the individual, which would go to the heart of whether the initial processing was “fair” (section 2(1)(a) Data Protection Act 1988). Any complaint arising out of identification would perhaps be made not only about the person naming the individual, but also, and more strongly, about the public authority who initiated the identification.

This is not a huge issue, and I’m not saying the Garda were wrong to tweet the picture, merely that it is some kind of irony that, having done so, they then seek to restrain speculation as to the identity of the car owner: on social media, once the data protection genie is out of the bottle, it can be very hard to get him back in.

1 Comment

Filed under Data Protection, human rights, police, social media

One response to “Letting the data protection genie out of the bottle

  1. The replies haven’t been deleted. I read them just now, minutes ago, direct on the Twitter site, including the reference to the family member and their employment, the details of which you redacted. But I’m damned if I can find them again now. Twitter can be a funny thing…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s