Can FCA – or any data controller – any longer argue that it’s too expensive to have to rectify inaccurate personal data?
Amidst all the hoo-ha about the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in terms of increased sanctions, accountability requirements and nonsense about email marketing, it’s easy to overlook some changes that it has also (or actually) wrought.
One small, but potentially profound difference, lies in the provisions around accuracy, and data subjects’ rights to rectification.
GDPR – as did its predecessor, the 1995 Data Protection Directive – requires data controllers to take “every reasonable step” to ensure that, having regard to the purposes of the processing, personal data which are inaccurate are erased or rectified without delay. Under the Directive the concomitant data subject right was to obtain from the controller, as appropriate the rectification, erasure or blocking of data. Under Article 16 of GDPR, however, there is no qualification or restriction of the right:
The data subject shall have the right to obtain from the controller without undue delay the rectification of inaccurate personal data concerning him or her.
I take this to mean that, yes, a controller must in general only take every reasonable step to ensure that inaccurate data is rectified (the “proactive obligation”, let us call it), but, when put on notice by a data subject exercising his or her right to rectification, the controller MUST rectify – and there is no express proportionality get-out (let us call this the “reactive obligation”).
This distinction, this significant strengthening of the data subject’s right, is potentially significant, it seems to me, in the recently-reported case of Alistair Hinton and the Financial Conduct Agency (FCA).
It appears that Mr Hinton has, for a number of years, been pursuing complaints against the FCA over alleged inaccuracies in its register of regulated firms, and in particular over an allegation that
a register entry which gave the impression both him [sic] and his wife were directors of a firm which the regulator had publicly censured
This puts into rather simple terms what appears to be a lengthy and complex complaint, stretching over several years, and which has resulted in three separate determinations by the Financial Regulators Complaints Commissioner (FRCC) (two of which appear to be publicly available). I no doubt continue to over-simplify when I say that the issue largely turns on whether the information on the register is accurate or not. In his February 2017 determination the FRCC reached the following conclusions (among others)
You and your wife have been the unfortunate victims of an unintended consequence of the design of the FSA’s (and now FCA’s) register, coupled with a particular set of personal circumstances;
…Since 2009 the FSA/FCA have accepted that your register entries are misleading, and have committed to reviewing the register design at an appropriate moment;
Although these findings don’t appear to have been directly challenged by the FCA, it is fair to note that the FCA are reported, in the determinations, as having maintained that the register entries are “technically and legally correct”, whilst conceding that they are indeed potentially misleading.
The most recent FRCC determination reports, as does media coverage, that the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is also currently involved. Whilst the FRCC‘s role is not to decide whether the FCA has acted lawfully or not, the ICO can assess whether or not the FCA’s processing of personal data is in accordance with the law.
And it occurs to me that the difference here between the Directive’s “reactive obligation” and GDPR’s “reactive obligation” to rectify inaccurate data (with the latter not having any express proportionality test) might be significant, because, until now, FCA has apparently relied on the fact that correcting the misleading information on its register would require system changes costing an estimated £50,000 to £100,000, and the FRCC has not had the power to challenge FCA’s argument that the cost of “a proper fix” was disproportionate. But if the Article 16 right is in general terms unqualified (subject to the Article 12(5) ability for a controller to charge for, or refuse to comply with, a request that is manifestly unfounded or excessive), can FCA resist a GDPR application for rectification? And could the ICO decide any differently?
Of course, one must acknowledge that there is a general principle of proportionality at European law (enshrined in Article 5 of the Treaty of the European Union) so a regulator, or a court, cannot simply dispense with the concept. But there was clearly an intention by European legislature not to put an express qualification on the right to rectification (and by extension the reactive obligation it places on controllers), and that will need to be the starting point for any assessment by said regulator, or court.
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.