It’s well known that, under the UK GDPR, and the Data Protection Act 2018 (DPA), the Information Commissioner can fine a controller or a processor a maximum of £17.5m (or 4% of global annual turnover). Less well known (to me at least) is that he can fine any person, including you, or me, or Matt Hancock, the same, even if they are not a controller or processor.
Section 142 of the DPA empowers the Commissioner to serve “Information Notices”. These fall broadly into two types: those served on a controller or processor requiring them to provide information which the Commissioner reasonably requires for the purposes of carrying out his functions under the data protection legislation; and those requiring
any person to provide the Commissioner with information that the Commissioner reasonably requires for the purposes of—
(i)investigating a suspected failure of a type described in section 149(2) or a suspected offence under this Act, or
(ii)determining whether the processing of personal data is carried out by an individual in the course of a purely personal or household activity.
And by section 155(1) of the DPA, the Commissioner may serve a monetary penalty notice (aka “fine”) on any “person” who fails to comply with an Information Notice. That includes you, or me, or Matt Hancock. (Section 157(4) provides that the maximum amount is £17.5m, or 4% of global annual turnover – although I doubt that you, I, or Matt Hancock has an annual global turnover.)
All very interesting and theoretical, you might think. Well, so might Matt Hancock have thought, until an Information Notice (which the Commissioner has recently uploaded to the ICO website) dropped onto his figurative doormat last year. The Notice was in relation to the Commissioner’s investigation of the leaking of CCTV images showing the former Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and his former aide enjoying each other’s company. The investigation – which was into the circumstances of the leak, and not Matt Hancock’s conduct – concluded in April of this year, with the ICO deciding that there was insufficient evidence to justify further action. But the Notice states clearly at paragraph 7 that failure to comply is, indeed, punishable with a fine of up to £17.5m (etc.).
The Matt Hancock Notice admittedly addresses him as if he were a controller (it says the ICO is looking at his compliance with the UK GDPR) although I am not sure that is correct – Matt Hancock will indeed be a controller in respect of his constituency work, and his work as an MP outside ministerial duties, but the normal approach is that a ministerial department will be the relevant controller for personal data processed in the context of that department (thus, the Department for Health and Social Care shows as a controller on the ICO register of fee payers).
Nonetheless, the ICO also issued an Information Notice to Matt Hancock’s former aide (as well as to Helen Whateley MP, the Minister of State), and that one makes no mention of UK GDPR compliance or a suggestion she was a controller, but does also “threaten” a potential £17.5m fine.
Of course, realistically, no one, not even Matt Hancock, was really ever at risk of a huge fine (section 155(3) of the DPA requires the Commissioner to have regard to various factors, including proportionality), but it strikes me as a remarkable state of affairs that you, I or any member of the public caught up in a matter that leads to ICO investigation, and who might have relevant information, is as a matter of law vulnerable to a penalty of £17.5m if they don’t comply with an Information Notice.
Even Matt Hancock.
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.