Is the DVLA’s online vehicle-checker risking the exposure of sensitive personal data of registered keepers of vehicles?
The concept of “personal data”, in the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) (and, beyond, in the European Data Protection Directive EC/95/46) can be a slippery one. In some cases, as the Court of Appeal recognised in Edem v The Information Commissioner & Anor  EWCA Civ 92 where it had to untangle a mess that the First-tier tribunal had unnecessarily got itself into, it is straightforward: someone’s name is their personal data. In other cases, especially those which engage the second limb of the definition in section 1(1) of the DPA (“[can be identified] from those data and other information which is in the possession of, or is likely to come into the possession of, the data controller” it can be profoundly complex (see the House of Lords in Common Services Agency v Scottish Information Commissioner (Scotland)  UKHL 47, a judgment which, six years on, still makes data protection practitioners wake up in the night screaming).
When I first looked at the reports that the DVLA’s Vehicle Tax Check service enabled people to see whether the registered owner of a car was disabled, I thought this might fall into the complex category of data protection issues. On reflection, I think it’s relatively straightforward.
I adopt the excellent analysis by the benefitsandwork.co.uk site
A new vehicle check service on the DVLA website allows visitors to find out whether their neighbours are receiving the higher rate of the mobility component of disability living allowance (DLA) or either rate of the mobility component of personal independence payment (PIP)…The information that DVLA are making available is not about the vehicle itself. Instead they are publishing personal information about the benefits received by the individual who currently owns the car or for whom the car is solely used.
It’s difficult to argue against this, although it appears the DVLA are trying, because they responded to the initial post by saying
The Vehicle Enquiry Service does not include any personal data. It allows people to check online what information DVLA holds about a vehicle, including details of the vehicle’s tax class to make sure that local authorities and parking companies do not inadvertently issue parking penalties where parking concessions apply. There is no data breach – the information on a vehicle’s tax class that is displayed on the Vehicle Enquiry Service does not constitute personal data. It is merely a descriptive word for a tax class
but, as benefitsandwork say, that is only true insofar as the DVLA are publishing the tax band of the car, but when they are publishing that the car belongs to a tax-exempt category for reasons of the owner’s disability, they are publishing something about the registered keeper (or someone they care for, or regularly drive), and that is sensitive personal data.
What DVLA is doing is not publishing the car’s tax class – that remains the same whoever the owner is – they are publishing details of the exempt status of the individual who currently owns it. That is personal data about the individual, not data about the vehicle
As the Information Commissioner’s guidance (commended by Moses LJ in Edem) says
Is the data being processed, or could it easily be processed, to: learn; record; or decide something about an identifiable individual, or; as an incidental consequence of the processing, either: could you learn or record something about an identifiable individual; or could the processing have an impact on, or affect, an identifiable individual
Ultimately benefitsandwork’s example (where someone was identified from this information) unavoidably shows that the information can be personal data: if someone can search the registration number of a neighbour’s car, and find out that the registered keeper is exempt from paying the road fund licence for reasons of disability, that information will be the neighbour’s personal data, and it will have been disclosed to them unfairly, and in breach of the DPA (because no condition for the disclosure in Schedule 3 exists).
I hope the DVLA will rethink.