On some sandy beach

[EDITED 25.07.17 to include references to “sandpits” in the report of the Deepmind Health Independent Review Panel]

What lies behind the Information Commissioner’s recent reference to “sandbox regulation”?

The government minister with responsibility for data protection, Matt Hancock, recently spoke to the Leverhulme Centre. He touched on data protection:

a new Data Protection Bill in this Parliamentary Session…will bring the laws up to date for the modern age, introduce new safeguards for citizens, stronger penalties for infringement, and important new features like the right to be forgotten. It will bring the EU’s GDPR and Law Enforcement Directive into UK law, ensuring we are prepared for Brexit.

All pretty standard stuff (let’s ignore the point that the “right to be forgotten” such as it is, exists under existing law – a big clue to this being that the landmark case was heard by the CJEU in 2014). But Hancock went on to cite with approval some recent words of the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham:

I think the ICO’s proposal of a data regulatory “sandbox” approach is very impressive and forward looking. It works in financial regulation and I look forward to seeing it in action here.

This refers to Denham’s recent speech on “Promoting privacy with innovation within the law”, in which she said

We are…looking at how we might be able to engage more deeply with companies as they seek to implement privacy by design…How we can contribute to a “safe space” by building a sandbox where companies can test their ideas, services and business models. How we can better recognise the circular rather than linear nature of the design process.

I thought this was interesting – “sandbox regulation” in the financial services sector involves an application to the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), for the testing of “innovative” products that don’t necessarily fit into existing regulatory frameworks – the FCA will even where necessary waive rules, and undertake not to take enforcement action.

That this model works for financial services does not, though, necessarily mean it would work when it comes to regulation of laws, such as data protection laws, which give effect to fundamental rights. When I made enquiries to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for further guidance on what Denham intends, I was told that they “don’t have anything to add to what [she’s] already said about engaging with companies to help implement privacy by design”.

The recent lack of enforcement action by the ICO against the Royal Free NHS Trust regarding its deal with Google Deepmind raised eyebrows in some circles: if the unlawful processing of 1.6 million health records (by their nature sensitive personal data) doesn’t merit formal enforcement, then does anything?

Was that a form of “sandbox regulation”? Presumably not, as it doesn’t appear that the ICO was aware of the arrangement prior to it taking place, but if, as it seems to me, such regulation may involve a light-touch approach where innovation is involved, I really hope that the views and wishes of data subjects are not ignored. If organisations are going to play in the sand with our personal data, we should at the very least know about it.

**EDIT: I have had my attention drawn to references to “sandpits” in the Annual Report of the Deepmind Health Independent Review Panel:

We think it would be helpful if there was a space, similar to the ‘sandpits’ established by the Research Councils, which would allow regulators, the Department of Health and tech providers to discuss these issues at an early stage of product development. The protection of data during testing is an issue that should be discussed in a similar collaborative forum. We believe that there must be a mechanism that allows effective testing without compromising confidential patient information.

It would seem a bit of a coincidence that this report should be published around the same time Denham and Hancock were making their speeches – and I would argue that this only bolsters the case for more transparency from the ICO about how this type of collaborative regulation will take place.

And I notice that the Review Panel say nothing about involving data subjects in “product development”. Until “innovators” understand that data subjects are the key stakeholder in this, I don’t hold out much hope for the proper protection of rights.**

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

1 Comment

Filed under Data Protection, enforcement, human rights, Information Commissioner

One response to “On some sandy beach

  1. Tim Turner

    It’s odd that they don’t want to talk about something that the Minister thinks is worth highlighting. Have there been discussions between DCMS and ICO or does Hancock just pay very close attention to Denham’s speeches?

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