Search and (don’t) destroy

Martin Lewis’s Money Saving Expert (MSE) site reports that over £1m is apparently held by Highways England (HE) in respect of Dartford Crossing pre-paid online accounts (Freedom of Information requests were apparently used to establish the amount). It is of course by no means uncommon for money to lie dormant in money accounts – for instance, banks across the world hold fantastic sums which never get claimed. MSE itself suggests elsewhere that the total amount in the UK alone might be around £15bn – but what these FOI requests to HE also revealed is an approach to retention of personal data which may not comply with HE’s legal obligations.

People appear to have received penalty charges after assuming that their pre-paid accounts – in credit when they were last used – would still cover the crossing charge (even where the drivers had been informed that their accounts had been closed for lack of use). MSE reports the case of Richard Riley, who

had been notified by email that his account would be closed, but he’d wrongly assumed it would be reactivated when he next made the crossing (this is only the case if you cross again within 90 days of being notified). On looking into it further, Richard also realised he had £16 in his closed account

However, HE apparently explained to MSE that

…it’s unable to reopen automatically closed accounts or automatically refund account-holders because it has to delete personal data to comply with data protection rules.

This cannot be right. Firstly, as the MSE article goes on to explain, if someone suspects or discovers that they have credit in a closed Dartford Crossing account, they can telephone HE and “any money will be paid back to the debit or credit card which was linked to the account. If this isn’t possible, a refund will be issued by cheque.”

So HE must retain some personal data which enables them to confirm whose money it is that they hold. But if it is true that HE feels that data protection law requires them to delete personal data which would otherwise enable them to refund account-holders when accounts are closed, then I fear that they are misreading two of the key principles of that law.

Article 5(1)(e) of the UK GDPR (the “storage limitation principle”) requires that personal data be “kept in a form which permits identification of data subjects for no longer than is necessary for the purposes for which the personal data are processed” (emphasis added), and Article 5(1)(c) ( the “data minimisation principle”) requires that personal data be “limited to what is necessary in relation to the purposes for which they are processed” (emphasis added). Both of these make clear that where personal data is still needed for the purposes for which it is processed, then it can (and should) be retained. And when one adds the point, under Article 5(1)(c), that personal data should also be “adequate” for the purposes for which it is processed, it becomes evident that unnecessary deletion of personal data which causes a detriment or damage to the data subject can in itself be an infringement.

This matter is, of course, on a much lower level of seriousness than, for instance, the unnecessary destruction of landing cards of members of the Windrush Generation, or recordings of witnesses in the Ireland Mother and Baby Homes enquiry, but it strikes me that it is – in general – a subject that is crying out for guidance (and where necessary enforcement) by the Information Commissioner. Too many people feel, it seems, that “data protection” means they have to delete, or erase or destroy personal data.

Sometimes, that is the worst thing to do.

The views in this post (and indeed most 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 accuracy, adequacy, Data Protection, Information Commissioner, Let's Blame Data Protection, UK GDPR

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