On the breach

Failure to notify the ICO in a timely manner of a personal data breach under PECR carries a £1000 fixed penalty notice – why not something similar under wider data protection law?

When the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (“PECR”) were amended in 2011 to implement the Citizens’ Rights Directive, an obligation was placed upon providers of a public electronic communications service  (“service providers”) to notify personal data breaches to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) “without undue delay”, and in 2013 article 2(2) of European Commission Regulation 611/2013 provided , in terms, that “without undue delay” would mean “no later than 24 hours after the detection of the personal data breach, where feasible”. The 2011 amendment regulations also gave the ICO the power to serve a fixed penalty notice of £1000 on a service provider which failed to comply with notification obligations.

Thus it was that in 2016 both EE and Talk Talk were served with such penalties, with the latter subsequently unsuccessfully appealing to the Information Tribunal, and thus it was that, last week, SSE Energy Supply were served with one. The SSE notice is interesting reading – the personal data breach in question (defined in amended regulation 2 of PECR as “a breach of security leading to the accidental or unlawful destruction, loss, alteration, unauthorised disclosure of, or access to, personal data transmitted, stored or otherwise processed in connection with the provision of a public electronic communications service”) consisted solely of the sending of one customer email (containing name and account number) to the wrong email address, and it appears that it was reported to the ICO two days after SSE realised (so, effectively, 24 hours too late). If this appears harsh, it is worth noting that the ICO has discretion over whether to impose the penalty or not, and, in determining that she should, the Commissioner took into account a pour encourager les autres argument that

the underlying objective in imposing a monetary penalty is to promote compliance with PECR. The requirement to notify…provides an important opportunity…to assess whether a service provider is complying with its obligations under PECR…A monetary penalty in this case would act as a general encouragement towards compliance…

As any fule kno, the looming General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”) expands to all data controllers this obligation to notify the ICO of qualifying personal data breaches. Under GDPR the definition is broadly similar to that in PECR (“a breach of security leading to the accidental or unlawful destruction, loss, alteration, unauthorised disclosure of, or access to, personal data transmitted, stored or otherwise processed”) and a breach qualifies for the notification requirements in all cases unless it is “unlikely to result in a risk to the rights and freedoms of natural persons”. Under GDPR, the window for notification is 72 hours.

But under GDPR, and under the Data Protection Bill currently in Parliament, there is no provision for similar fixed penalty notices for notification failures (although, of course, a failure to notify a breach could constitute a general infringement under article 83, attracting a theoretical non-fixed maximum fine of €10m or 2% of global annual turnover). Is Parliament missing a trick here? If the objective of the PECR fixed penalty notice is to promote compliance with PECR, then why not a similar fixed penalty notice to promote compliance with wider data protection legislation? In 2016/17 the ICO received 1005 notifications by service providers of PECR breaches (up 63% on the previous year) and analysing/investigating these will be no small task. The figure under GDPR will no doubt be much higher, but that is surely not a reason not to provide for a punitive fixed penalty scheme for those who fail to comply with the notification requirements (given what the underlying objective of notification is)?

I would be interested to know if anyone is aware of discussions on this, and whether, as it reaches the Commons, there is any prospect of the Data Protection Bill changing to incorporate fixed penalties for notification failures.

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.

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Filed under Breach Notification, Data Protection, Data Protection Bill, enforcement, GDPR, Information Commissioner, monetary penalty notice, PECR

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