Category Archives: enforcement

DCMS consulting on lower threshold for “fining” spammers

UPDATE: 08.11.14

Rich Greenhill has spotted another odd feature of this consultation. Options one and two both use the formulation “the contravention was deliberate or the person knew or ought to have known that there was a risk that the contravention would occur”, however, option three omits the words “…or ought to have known”. This is surely a typo, because if it were a deliberate omission it would effectively mean that penalties could not be imposed for negligent contraventions (only deliberate or wilful contraventions would qualify). I understand Rich has asked DCMS to clarify this, and will update as and when he hears anything.


UPDATE: 04.11.14

An interesting development of this story was how many media outlets and commentators reported that the consultation was about lowering the threshold to “likely to cause annoyance, inconvenience or anxiety”, ignoring in the process that the preferred option of DCMS and ICO was for no harm threshold at all. Christopher Knight, on 11KBW’s Panopticon blog kindly amended his piece when I drew this point to his attention. He did, however observe that most of the consultation paper, and DCMS’s website, appeared predicated on the assumption that the lower-harm threshold was at issue. Today, Rich Greenhill informs us all that he has spoken to DCMS, and that their preference is indeed for a “no harm” approach: “Just spoke to DCMS: govt prefers PECR Option 3 (zero harm), its PR is *wrong*”. How very odd.


The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has announced a consultation on lowering the threshold for the imposing of financial sanctions on those who unlawfully send electronic direct marketing. They’ve called it a “Nuisance calls consultation”, which, although they explain that it applies equally to nuisance text messages, emails etc., doesn’t adequately describe what could be an important development in electronic privacy regulation.

When, a year ago, the First-tier Tribunal (FTT) upheld the appeal by spam texter Christopher Niebel against the £300,000 monetary penalty notice (MPN) served on him by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), it put the latter in an awkward position. And when the Upper Tribunal dismissed the ICO’s subsequent appeal, there was binding authority on the limits to the ICO’s power to serve MPNs for serious breaches of the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (PECR). There was no dispute that, per the mechanism at section 55A of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), adopted by PECR by virtue of regulation 31, Niebel’s contraventions were serious and deliberate, but what was at issue was whether they were “of a kind likely to cause substantial damage or substantial distress”. The FTT held that they were not – no substantial damage would be likely to arise and when it came to distress

the effect of the contravention is likely to be widespread irritation but not widespread distress…we cannot construct a logical likelihood of substantial distress as a result of the contravention.

When the Upper Tribunal agreed with the FTT, and the ICO’s Head of Enforcement said it had “largely [rendered] our power to issue fines for breaches of PECR involving spam texts redundant” it seemed clear that, for the time being at least, there was in effect a green light for spam texters, and, by extension, other spam electronic marketers. The DCMS consultation is in response to calls from the ICO, and others, such as the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Nuisance Calls, the Direct Marketing Association and Which for a change in the law.

The consultation proposes three options – 1) do nothing, 2) lower the threshold from “likely to cause substantial damage or substantial distress” to “likely to cause annoyance, inconvenience or anxiety”, or 3) remove the threshold altogether, so any serious and deliberate (or reckless) contravention of the PECR provisions would attract the possibility of a monetary penalty. The third option is the one favoured by DCMS and the ICO.

If either of the second or third options is ultimately enacted, this could, I feel, lead to a significant reduction in the prevalence of spam marketing. The consultation document notes that (despite the fact that the MPN was overturned on appeal) the number of unsolicited spam SMS text message sent reduced by a significant number after the Niebel MPN was served. A robust and prominent campaign of enforcement under a legislative scheme which makes it much easier to impose penalties to a maximum of £500,000, and much more difficult to appeal them, could put many spammers out of business, and discourage others. This will be subject, of course, both to the willingness and the resources of the ICO. The consultation document notes that there might be “an expectation that [MPNs] would be issued by the ICO in many more cases than its resources permit” but the ICO has said (according to the document) that it is “ready and equipped to investigate and progress a significant number of additional cases with a view to taking greater enforcement action including issuing more CMPs”.

There appears to be little resistance (as yet, at least) to the idea of lowering or removing the penalty threshold. Given that, and given the ICO’s apparent willingness to take on the spammers, we may well see a real and significant attack on the scourge. Of course, this only applies to identifiable spammers in the domestic jurisdiction – let’s hope it doesn’t just drive an increase in non-traceable, overseas spam.




Filed under Data Protection, enforcement, Information Commissioner, Information Tribunal, marketing, monetary penalty notice, nuisance calls, PECR, spam texts, Upper Tribunal

If at first you don’t succeed…

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has uploaded to its website (24 October) two undertakings for breaches of data controllers’ obligations under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA). Undertakings are part of the ICO’s suite of possible enforcement actions against controllers.

One undertaking was signed by Gwynedd Council, after incidents in which social care information was posted to the wrong address, and a social care file went missing in transit between two sites. The other, more notably, was signed by the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS), who signed a previous undertaking in March this year, after failing to amend a question (“e55″) on its application form which had been rendered obsolete by legislative changes. The March undertaking noted that

Question e55 of the application form asked the individuals ‘Have you ever been convicted of a criminal offence or received a caution, reprimand or warning?’ [Some applicants] responded positively to this question even though it was old and minor caution/conviction information that would have been filtered under the legislation. The individual’s positive response to question e55 was then seen by prospective employers who withdrew their job offers

This unnecessary disclosure was, said the ICO, unfair processing of sensitive personal data, and the undertaking committed DBS to amend the question on the form by the end of March.

However, the latest undertaking reveals that

application forms which do not contain the necessary amendments remain in circulation. This is because a large number of third party organisations are continuing to rely on legacy forms issued prior to the amendment of question e55. In the Commissioner’s view, the failure to address these legacy forms could be considered to create circumstances under which the unfair processing of personal data arises

The March undertaking had also committed DBS to ensure that supporting information provided to those bodies with access to the form be

kept under review to ensure that they continue to receive up to date, accurate and relevant guidance in relation to filtered matters

One might cogently argue that part of that provision of up-to-date guidance should have involved ensuring that those bodies destroyed old, unamended forms. And if one did argue that successfully, one would arrive at the conclusion that DBS could be in breach of the March undertaking for failing to do so. Breach of an undertaking does not automatically result in more serious sanctions, but they are available to the ICO, in the form of monetary penalties and enforcement notices. DBS might consider themselves lucky to have been given a second (or third?) chance, under which they must, by the end of of the year at the latest ensure that unamended legacy application forms containing are either rejected or removed from circulation.

One final point I would make is that no press release appears to have been put out about yesterday’s undertakings, nothing is on the ICO’s home page, and there wasn’t even a tweet from their twitter account. A large part of a successful enforcement regime is publicising when action has been taken. The ICO’s own policy on this says

Publicising our enforcement and regulatory activities is an important part of our role as strategic regulator, and a deterrent for potential offenders

Letting “offenders” off the publicising hook runs the risk of diminishing that deterrent effect.


Filed under Data Protection, enforcement, Information Commissioner, undertaking

Dancing to the beat of the Google drum

With rather wearying predictability, certain parts of the media are in uproar about the removal by Google of search results linking to a positive article about a young artist. Roy Greenslade, in the Guardian, writes

The Worcester News has been the victim of one of the more bizarre examples of the European court’s so-called “right to be forgotten” ruling.

The paper was told by Google that it was removing from its search archive an article in praise of a young artist.

Yes, you read that correctly. A positive story published five years ago about Dan Roach, who was then on the verge of gaining a degree in fine art, had to be taken down.

Although no one knows who made the request to Google, it is presumed to be the artist himself, as he had previously asked the paper itself to remove the piece,  on the basis that he felt it didn’t reflect the work he is producing now. But there is a bigger story here, and in my opinion it’s one of Google selling itself as an unwilling censor, and of media uncritically buying it.

Firstly, Google had no obligation to remove the results. The judgment of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in the Google Spain case was controversial, and problematic, but its effect was certainly not to oblige a search engine to respond to a takedown request without considering whether it has a legal obligation to do so. What it did say was that, although as a rule data subjects’ rights to removal override the interest of the general public having access to the information delivered by a search query, there may be particular reasons why the balance might go the other way.

Furthermore, even if the artist here had a legitimate complaint that the results constituted his personal data, and that the continued processing by Google was inadequate, inaccurate, excessive or continuing for longer than was necessary (none of which, I would submit, would actually be likely to apply in this case), Google could simply refuse to comply with the takedown request. At that point, the requester would be left with two options: sue, or complain to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). The former option is an interesting one (and I wonder if any such small claims cases will be brought in the County Court) but I think in the majority of cases people will be likely to take the latter. However, if the ICO receives a complaint, it appears that the first thing it is likely to do is refer the person to the publisher of the information in question. In a blog post in August the Deputy Commissioner David Smith said

We’re about to update our website* with advice on when an individual should complain to us, what they need to tell us and how, in some cases, they might be better off pursuing their complaint with the original publisher and not just the search engine [emphasis added]

This is in line with their new approach to handling complaints by data subjects – which is effectively telling them to go off and resolve it with the data controller in the first place.

Even if the complaint does make its way to an ICO case officer, what that officer will be doing is assessing – pursuant to section 42 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) – “whether it is likely or unlikely that the processing has been or is being carried out in compliance with the provisions of [the DPA]”. What the ICO is not doing is determining an appeal. An assessment of “compliance not likely” is no more than that – it does not oblige the data controller to take action (although it may be accompanied by recommendations). An assessment of “compliance likely”, moreover, leaves an aggrieved data subject with no other option but to attempt to sue the data controller. Contrary to what Information Commissioner Christopher Graham said at the recent Rewriting History debate, there is no right of appeal to the Information Tribunal in these circumstances.

Of course the ICO could, in addition to making a “compliance not likely” assessment, serve Google with an enforcement notice under section 42 DPA requiring them to remove the results. An enforcement notice does have proper legal force, and it is a criminal offence not comply with one. But they are rare creatures. If the ICO does ever serve one on Google things will get interesting, but let’s not hold our breath.

So, simply refusing to take down the results would, certainly in the short term, cause Google no trouble, nor attract any sanction.

Secondly (sorry, that was a long “firstly”) Google appear to have notified the paper of the takedown, in the same way they notified various journalists of takedowns of their pieces back in June this year (with, again, the predictable result that the journalists were outraged, and republicised the apparently taken down information). The ICO has identified that this practice by Google may in itself constitute unfair and unlawful processing: David Smith says

We can certainly see an argument for informing publishers that a link to their content has been taken down. However, in some cases, informing the publisher has led to the complained about information being republished, while in other cases results that are taken down will link to content that is far from legitimate – for example to hate sites of various sorts. In cases like that we can see why informing the content publisher could exacerbate an already difficult situation and could in itself have a very detrimental effect on the complainant’s privacy

Google is a huge and hugely rich organisation. It appears to be trying to chip away at the CJEU judgment by making it look ridiculous. And in doing so it is cleverly using the media to help portray it as a passive actor – victim, along with the media, of censorship. As I’ve written previously, Google is anything but passive – it has algorithms which prioritise certain results above others, for commercial reasons, and it will readily remove search results upon receipt of claims that the links are to copyright material. Those elements of the media who are expressing outrage at the spurious removal of links might take a moment to reflect whether Google is really as interested in freedom of expression as they are, and, if not, why it is acting as it is.


*At the time of writing this advice does not appear to have been made available on the ICO website.


Filed under Data Protection, Directive 95/46/EC, enforcement, Information Commissioner, Privacy

Green light for spam texters – for now

The ICO has effectively conceded he has no current powers to issue monetary penalties on spam texters.

In June this year the Upper Tribunal dismissed the appeal by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) against the quashing of a £300,000 monetary penalty notice (the MPN) served on spam texter Christopher Niebel. The MPN had been issued pursuant to the ICO’s powers under section 55A of the Data Protection Act 1998 to serve such a notice if there has been a serious contravention of the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (PECR) of a kind likely to cause substantial damage or substantial distress. The Upper Tribunal held that the First-tier Tribunal had not erred in law in finding that the ICO’s relevant interpretation of “distress” was unsustainable:

the tribunal took issue with the Commissioner’s guidance as to the meaning of “distress” and, in my opinion rightly so. According to that guidance, “Distress is any injury to feelings, harm or anxiety suffered by an individual” (at paragraph [12], emphasis added). The tribunal’s conclusion was that if this “involves the proposition that it is not possible to have ‘any injury to feelings’ which falls short of ‘distress’ then, it seems to us, that the definition is at odds with common experience and with the ordinary use of English [¶60]

As the law required evidence that Niebel’s company’s sending of spam texts had been of a kind likely to cause substantial distress, and as the ICO’s evidence did not match up to this, the MPN had been rightly quashed. Implicitly, the Upper Tribunal was suggesting that further MPNs of this kind would also not be sustainable, and, explicitly, it questioned whether, if Parliament wanted to give the ICO powers to financially punish spam texters, it would require a change in the law

[a] more profitable course of action, is for the statutory test to be revisited…a statutory test that was formulated in terms of e.g. annoyance, inconvenience and/or irritation, rather than “substantial damage or substantial distress”, might well have resulted in a different outcome.

To no real surprise, since the ICO lost this appeal, no further MPNs have been issued for spam texting (some have been served for spam telephone calls). Now the ICO, in a blog post by their Head of Enforcement Steve Eckersley has effectively conceded that the result of the Niebel litigation has been to remove their powers to serve MPNs for spam texts, saying it had “largely [rendered] our power to issue fines for breaches of PECR involving spam texts redundant”. And Eckersley picks up the call for a law change, confirming that there will be a consultation later this year (whether any of this will see results this side of the general election, however, is another question).  This call echoes one made by the Information Commissioner himself, who said in February

We have just got to lower that hurdle because I think if you ask most people they would say silent calls and unsolicited spam texts are one of the great curses of the age – and if the Information Commissioner can’t protect you it’s a poor lookout.
There are, of course, other strings to the ICO bow, and Eckersley refers to some of them
we are using our existing powers to hold companies to account and to disrupt their unlawful activities….and we are obtaining undertakings from and issuing enforcement notices, effectively cease-and-desist orders, to companies that breach PECR.
This sounds good, but leaves me rather puzzled: as the ICO has confirmed to me, no enforcement notices have been served and only one undertaking obtained, against companies or individuals who have sent spam texts in breach of PECR. Enforcement notices are a strong power – breach of one is a criminal offence – and only require the ICO to consider whether the PECR contravention has caused or is likely to cause any person damage or distress, not “substantial damage or substantial distress”. This lower threshold should make it much more difficult for enforcement to be resisted. Maybe some enforcement notices are on their way? One rather hopes so, because, for the moment, it looks like spam texters have received a green light.
Tim Turner points out to me that a conviction for breach of an enforcement notice is not a recordable offence it will not make its way on to the Police National Computer, and will not therefore generally result in disclosure for, e.g. employment purposes. Tim’s view, and it is a compelling one, is that for a lot of spammers the threat of a minor conviction for breach of a legal notice is not one which is likely to dissuade them from their practice.


Filed under Data Protection, enforcement, Information Commissioner, Information Tribunal, marketing, monetary penalty notice, nuisance calls, PECR, Upper Tribunal


UPDATE: 16 July 2014 – in the comments to this piece the ICO adds some further details on the “non-trivial” incident: “We are unable to provide details of the breach at this stage, as the information involved is linked to an ongoing criminal investigation.”

The ICO had a “non-trivial” data security incident last year. Can it “fine” itself? Will/has it?

There was an interesting teaser in the Information Commissioner’s Annual Report. As The Times reports

Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner (ICO), revealed yesterday that his office had suffered a “non-trivial data security incident” within the last 12 months, which prompted a full internal investigation

The ICO, of course, processes personal data and in doing so assumes the role of the data controller (according to section 1(1) of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA)). It also assumes the obligation to comply with the data protection principles, and the liability for contravening them. In 2012 the ICO responded to a Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) request for its “data breach log” with a document that showed admirable commitment to recording even the smallest of potential data security incidents (“person taking photographs outside building”, “theft of small amount of money”). In that instance there were two incidents identified as “high risk”, but the ICO declined to provide information, and the requester, it seems, did not pursue the matter.

This time, with national media picking the story up, the matter may be pushed further. At the moment the ICO is apparently declining to offer any further comment to the media, advising The Times that

You will have to fill out a freedom of information request

which doesn’t really sit that well with their normal commitment to transparency.

But to what extent can or should the ICO investigate its own compliance with the DPA? The Act does not provide for any derogation for the ICO from its obligations, and nor does it provide for any alternative to “self regulation”. Nor, moreover, does it appear to provide for any delegation to a third party to investigate. When it deals with complaints about its own handling of FOIA requests it habitually issues decision notices about itself (sometimes even finding against itself). It does this by distinguishing between “the ICO” (the entity dealing with the request) and “the Commissioner” (the entity dealing with the complaint). I would imagine that a similar nominal separation would be used if it came to formal enforcement action being contemplated in response to a data security incident.

I emphasis the word “if” in the previous sentence, because, although The Times says

The ICO, which can levy fines of up to £500,000 for data protection breaches, did not disclose whether it had fined itself for the breach

it is clear in fact that no such enforcement action resulted in this instance. This is clear because, firstly, the ICO’s own Monetary Penalty Guidance says that any monetary penalty notice (for which “fine” is a convenient, if not strictly correct, shorthand) will be published on its website. None has been published (believe me – I check these things very regularly). And secondly, and more fundamentally, the ICO’s report says that the incident in question

did not amount to a serious breach of the Data Protection Act [emphasis added]

By section 55A a monetary penalty can only be served for a serious contravention of the data controller’s obligations under the DPA. If the incident was not a serious contravention, the statutory threshold for a monetary penalty is simply not met. So, regardless of what other information about the incident might be winkled out of the ICO, we are not going to have a story of “ICO fines ICO”.

However, on a final point, I note that the ICO expects data controllers to report serious data security incidents to the ICO. So the question arises – did the ICO report this to the ICO, or did the ICO assess this as not serious enough to refer to the ICO?  How did the ICO get to know? Could it have been a leak by the ICO? Or even by the ICO? These questions deserve answers*.

*no they don’t


Filed under Data Protection, enforcement, Freedom of Information, Information Commissioner, monetary penalty notice

We’re looking into it

The news is awash with reports that the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is “opening an investigation” into Facebook’s rather creepy research experiment, in conjunction with US universities, in which it apparently altered the users’ news feeds to elicit either positive or negative emotional responses. Thus, the BBC says “Facebook faces UK probe over emotion study”, SC Magazine says “ICO probes Facebook data privacy” and the Financial Times says “UK data regulator probes Facebook over psychological experiment”.

As well as prompting one to question some journalists’ obsession with probes, this also leads one to look at the basis for these stories. It appears to lie in a quote from an ICO spokesman, given I think originally to the online IT news outlet The Register

The Register asked the office of the UK’s Information Commissioner if it planned to probe Facebook following widespread criticism of its motives.

“We’re aware of this issue, and will be speaking to Facebook, as well as liaising with the Irish data protection authority, to learn more about the circumstances,” a spokesman told us.
So, the ICO is aware of the issue and will be speaking to Facebook and to the Irish Data Protection Commissioner’s office. This doesn’t quite match up to the rather hyperbolic news headlines. And there’s a good reason for this – the ICO is highly unlikely to have any power to investigate, let alone take action. Facebook, along with many other tech/social media companies, has its non-US headquarters in Ireland. This is partly for taxation reasons and partly because of access to high-skilled, relatively low cost labour. However, some companies – Facebook is one, LinkedIn another – have another reason, evidenced by the legal agreements that users enter into: because the agreement is with “Facebook Ireland”, then Ireland is deemed to be the relevant jurisdiction for data protection purposes. And, fairly or not, the Irish data protection regime is generally perceived to be relatively “friendly” towards business.
These jurisdictional issues are by no means clear cut – in 2013  a German data protection authority tried to exercise powers to stop Facebook imposing a “real name only” policy.
Furthermore, as the Court of Justice of the European Union recognised in the recent Google Spain case, the issue of territorial responsibilities and jurisdiction can be highly complex. The Court held there that, as Google had
[set] up in a Member State a branch or subsidiary which is intended to promote and sell advertising space offered by that engine and which orientates its activity towards the inhabitants of that Member State
it was processing personal data in that Member State (Spain). Facebook does have a large UK corporate office with some responsibility for sales. It is just possible that this could give the ICO, as domestic data protection authority, some power to investigate. And if or when the draft European General Data Protection Regulation gets passed, fundamental shifts could take place, extending even, under Article 3(2) to bringing data controllers outside the EU within jurisdiction, where they are offering goods or services to (or monitoring) data subjects in the EU.
But the question here is really whether the ICO will assert any purported power to investigate, when the Irish DPC is much more clearly placed to do so (albeit it with terribly limited resources). I think it’s highly unlikely, despite all the media reports. In fact, if the ICO does investigate, and it leads to any sort of enforcement action, I will eat my hat*.
*I reserve the right to specify what sort of hat

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Filed under Data Protection, Directive 95/46/EC, enforcement, facebook, journalism, social media, Uncategorized

Kent Police get £100,000 penalty for poor data security

I blogged last week about “data breaches”, and the need to define and sometimes to differentiate between a breach of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) and a general data security breach. Well, I’m (not at all) pleased to say that today’s news of the latest monetary penalty notice (MPN) served by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) on Kent Police doesn’t need any such nuanced analysis. Here was a data security breach which was also a manifest breach of the DPA.

A police officer, by chance, discovered in some premises video tapes clearly marked as police material. He subsequently ascertained that the owner had found them, and much more besides, in the basement of a former police station which he had purchased. It is difficut to think of more sensitive information than the kind which was involved here. In part it consisted of

documents and video/audio tapes containing confidential and highly sensitive personal data about a significant number of individuals. These included files relating to threats to kill, rape, grievous bodily harm and child abuse cases; interviews with victims, witnesses/informants and suspects

Although the force had initially

taken some steps to safeguard the information by carrying out inspections of the former police station which identified that items were still in situ

the failure to have any policies in place, or to assign responsibility to anyone, meant that this was a clear and serious contravention of the seventh data protection principle (relating to data security measures) of a kind likely to cause, at least, substantial distress. I would add, although the ICO does not, that it might well have been also a serious contravention of the fifth principle (“Personal data processed for any purpose or purposes shall not be kept for longer than is necessary for that purpose or those purposes”). Given this, it is somewhat surprising that this case falls (admittedly at the top end) into the lowest category of cases qualifying for an MPN (the ICO’s internal guidance says that these cases will attract an amount of £40,000 to £100,000). Bearing in mind that Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust got an MPN of £325,000 for failing to dispose of computer hard drives properly, this current MPN seems low.

It also, once again, draws attention to the importance of good records management within police forces. I wrote only recently, in the context of the Ellison Review of policing relating to the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, about how records management is essential for the operation of the rule of law and the current case just gives even greater strength to this.

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Filed under Data Protection, enforcement, Information Commissioner, monetary penalty notice, police, records management

Implications of the Home Office data breach

What sanctions might result from the recent Home Office data breach, and how does it relate to the transparency agenda?

News emerged yesterday, through the rather unusual route of a statement to Parliament by Mark Harper, Minister for Immigration, that a spreadsheet containing the personal information of almost 1600 people had been inadvertently published by the Home Office on a government website. The minister’s statement says

between 15 and 28 October 2013 some personal data was available on the Home Office website as part of a spreadsheet alongside the regular data set in error. This was identified by Home Office officials on 28 October 2013 and the personal information was  removed immediately. The personal data related to the names of 1,598 main applicants in the family returns process, their date of birth and limited details about their immigration case type and status

On these conceded facts this would appear to be a clear breach of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), and, specifically, the principles of Schedule 1 to the Act which require that processing be fair and lawful, and that appropriate technical and organisational measures shall be taken against unauthorised or unlawful processing of personal data. But what are the implications of this?

By virtue of section 4(4) of the DPA a data controller – in this instance the Home Office – must comply with those principles. A serious contravention of them, of a kind which is likely to cause substantial damage or substantial distress, can (by section 55A) invoke the powers of the Information Commissioner’s Office (IC) to serve a monetary penalty notice, to a maximum of £500,000. Whether the IC would exercise his discretion to do so would depend on various factors. Firstly, he would need to satisfy himself whether the personal data involved was “sensitive”. Sensitive personal data is afforded greater protection by the DPA, and breaches involving it are accordingly more serious. We are told that the information involved here consisted of people’s names, dates of birth, and their immigration status. Information about a person’s racial or ethnic origin is sensitive personal data – could one derive or infer that from the mistakenly disclosed information? This will be an important question to answer. But, additionally and more simply, it seems that these were “illegal immigrants” – the data was related to immigration family returns, and this would certainly seem to imply either the commission or alleged commission of an offence by those whose data was exposed, and this would also move the data into the category of “sensitive”.

Whether the apparent contravention was likely to cause substantial damage or substantial distress is less clear. The minister points out that there appear to have been fewer than thirty page views, but that we don’t know whether any of those people accessed or downloaded the data. But this perhaps overlooks the part of the statutory scheme which talks about whether the contravention was “of a kind likely” to cause the damage or distress. If for instance, this incident, which we are told is being investigated by the IC, is a symptom of inappropriate or insufficient data security measures, then that factor, rather than this discrete incident, could potentially give rise to sanctions. Also relevant might be what efforts the Home Office has taken to ensure that cached versions of the data have been removed from the internet – it is remarkably easy for information quickly to be captured and mirrored elsewhere, by automated web services.

The IC’s powers are not limited, however, to issuing monetary penalties. He can also issue enforcement notices requiring data controllers to take specified actions, and a breach of an enforcement notice can be a criminal offence. Less seriously, he can simply make a determination as to whether there is likely to have been a breach of the DPA. And he can take informal action, requiring a responsible person at the ministry to sign an undertaking to improve compliance.

The transparency agenda

What I also find noteworthy is that the minister prefaces his statement with remarks about the government’s commitment

to openness and transparency to enable the public to hold the government and other public bodies to account. This government has made more data available than ever before…

These are laudable aims and actions, but, I have written before that the transparency agenda carries with it risks that, in the rush to publish more and more data, there will be privacy and data protection breaches. And if the government and the IC, as regulator, do not do more to alert people to these risks they must be aware that they risk being seen as complicit in such breaches. As I said in my piece for The Guardian

The IC must work with the government to offer advice direct to chief executives and those responsible for risk…So far these disclosure errors do not appear to have led to harm to those individuals whose private information was compromised, but, without further action, I fear it is only a matter of time.

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Filed under Data Protection, enforcement, Home Office, Information Commissioner, monetary penalty notice, parliament, transparency

Monetary penalties – focus on the breach, not the incident

The Information Tribunal’s judgment in the successful appeal by Scottish Borders Council shows that the ICO needs to focus on the contravention itself, not an incident which might arise from it

looking at the facts of the case, what did happen was in our view a surprising outcome, not a likely one

Sections 55A-E of the Data Protection 1998 (DPA), inserted by the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, provide for the Information Commissioner (IC) to serve a data controller with a monetary penalty notice (MPN) to a maximum of £500,000 if

  • he is satisfied that there has been a serious contravention of the controller’s obligations to comply with the data protection principles in Schedule One of the DPA, and
  • the contravention was of a kind likely to cause substantial damage or substantial distress, and
  • the contravention was either deliberate or the controller either knew or ought to have known that there was a risk that the contravention of its occurring and that it would be of a kind likely to cause substantial damage or substantial distress, but failed to take reasonable steps to prevent the contravention.

In its judgment, handed down today, on what is effectively* a successful appeal by Scottish Borders Council, the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) (“FTT”) has given guidance on, what is required in order for the IC to be satisfied that a serious contravention was likely to cause substantial damage or substantial distress. In particular, the FTT has clarified that, where the DPA talks about a “serious contravention”, the IC must focus on that, and not on any incident which might follow.

The Monetary Penalty Notice

The events giving rise to the original MPN (still currently on the IC’s website) are laid out by the FTT in the first two paragraphs of the judgment

Outside Tesco in South Queensferry there are some bins for recycling waste paper. They are of the “post box” type. On 10 September 2011 a member of the public found that one of the bins was overflowing. The material at the top, easily accessible, consisted of files containing pension records kept by a local authority (“Scottish Borders”). It turned out that a data processing company had transferred the information from hard copy files to CDs at Scottish Borders’ request. The data processor had then disposed of about 1,600 manual files in the post box bins at Tesco and at another supermarket in the town.

The police took into their possession all those files which they could reach. They then secured the bins and, with the cooperation of Scottish Borders, it was ascertained that the files concerned had now either been pulped without manual intervention or were now back in the safe keeping of the council.

The IC imposed an MPN of £250,000, finding that there had been a serious contravention of the obligation to comply with the seventh data protection principle (DPP7) which states that

Appropriate technical and organisational measures shall be taken against unauthorised or unlawful processing of personal data and against accidental loss or destruction of, or damage to, personal data.

and that, where, as here, processing of personal data is carried out by a data processor on behalf of a data controller, the latter must choose as the former one who provides sufficient guarantees in respect of its data security measures, and ensure that such processing is carried out under a suitable written contract (I paraphrase).

The contravention here was the failure by the Council to ensure that it engaged an appropriate data processor (to dispose of the pensions records) in an appropriate way (by means of an adequate contract, properly monitored and adequately evidenced in writing).

The IC said that contravention was likely to cause substantial damage or substantial distress (query, which?) to those whose confidential data was seen by a member of the public and that

If the data has been disclosed to untrustworthy third parties then it is likely that the contravention would cause further distress and also substantial damage to the data subjects such as exposing them to identity fraud and possible financial loss

Arguments and findings

The FTT found that there was a contravention. The Council had a long-standing (some 25-30 years) agreement with the data processor but it appears that the contractual arrangement was largely based on informal agreements and assurances. Although it was to an extent evidence in writing, this was still inadequate. Accordingly

the arrangements made by Scottish Borders for processing pension records in July and August 2011 were in contravention of the DPA

Further, the FTT was satisfied that the contravention was serious

the duties in relation to data processing contracts in paras 11 and 12 of schedule 1 are at the heart of the system for protecting personal data under DPA. It is fundamental that the data controller cannot be allowed to contract out its responsibilities [and] the contravention was not an isolated human error. It was systemic

However, counsel for the IC, the redoubtable Robin Hopkins, reminded the FTT that they must focus on the contravention which gave rise to the MPN. In this case, this was distinguishable from the events described in the first two paragraphs of the judgment: the contravention was the breach of DPP7, not the discovery of the data. On this basis, the FTT did not accept that the contravention had been of a kind likely to cause substantial damage or substantial distress. Evidence was taken from David Smith, Deputy IC, and the IC developed an argument focusing on the risks of identity theft, but the FTT seems to have felt that the evidence was either unconvincing (regarding the likelihood of identity theft) or still focused wrongly on what it calls the “trigger point” (the disposal/finding of the files in the bin) rather than the contravention itself. As to the latter

it seems to us that the fact that the data processor was a specialist contractor with a history of 25-30 years of dealings with Scottish Borders carries weight. He was no fly by night. The council had good reason to trust the company.

And, therefore

Focussing on the contravention we have been unable to construct a likely chain of events which would lead to substantial damage or substantial distress. What did happen was of course startling enough. Again, though, looking at the facts of the case, what did happen was in our view a surprising outcome, not a likely one.

This illustrates a fundamental point, but one, it seems, of great significance. It will, no doubt, be seized upon eagerly by any data controller in receipt of a notice of intent to serve an MPN. (It was also, I should acknowledge, anticipated by observations by Tim Turner and Andrew Walsh, both former ICO employees). However, the FTT do stress that although this case did not involve a contravention of a kind likely to cause substantial damage or substantial distress

No doubt some breaches of the seventh DPP in respect of some data might be of such a kind

What now?

I said earlier this was “effectively a successful appeal”. It was in fact an appeal on a preliminary issue (on the liability of the Council to pay an MPN) and under the Data Protection (Monetary Penalties) Order 2010 the FTT may either allow the appeal or substitute such other notice or decision which could have been served or made by the IC. The FTT’s concerns about the Council’s procedures in relation to data processing contracts were “too serious” for them simply to allow the appeal, and they are – pending discussions between the IC and the Council – considering whether to issue an enforcement notice.

Notwithstanding the outcome of those discussions, this is an important judgment to be read alongside the unsuccessful MPN appeal by the Central London Community Healthcare NHS Trust. Until an MPN case gets appealed further we will not have binding authority, but the lines are perhaps becoming a bit clearer for data controllers, and, indeed for the ICO.

There were some interesting comments and observations by the FTT on “other issues canvassed in the course of [the] appeal but which it has not been necessary to resolve”. I hope to post a follow-up about these in due course.

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It’s still not fine

Last week I blogged about enforcement notices served on three Midlands police forces by the Information Commissioner (IC). I was surprised that the circumstances hadn’t merited stronger sanctions, in the form of monetary penalty notices (MPNs), and I tweeted to ask why.

As you can perhaps see, the IC’s office has kindly replied to my tweet. I had asked

I would really like to know why the IC did not see fit to issue Monetary Penalty Notices. Can you advise?

and their reply says

enforcement notices best means of improving compliance. Considered details of the case inc limited involvement of each force

I have to say I think this is a questionable response (although I take the point that a 140-character limit is restrictive).

Firstly, enforcement activities are not mutually exclusive – it is not uncommon for an enforcement notice and an MPN to be served in tandem on a data controller. thus, as recently as June this year, Glasgow City Council was served an MPN of £150,000 by the IC following the loss of, er, unencrypted laptops, and at the same time was served an enforcement notice requiring certain corrective actions to be undertaken.

Secondly, and I may be misinterpreting, but the reply seems to say that the “limited involvement of each force” was a determining factor in a decision not to serve an MPN. However, there were three data controllers involved. If each of them had a “limited” involvement, one is led to ask “wasn’t that the main problem?”. Derbyshire and Leicestershire both “did not carry out a risk assessment before they joined [the collaboration unit]…relying on the security measures taken by Nottinghamshire“, but those security measures were inadequate (lack of encryption, laptops not physically secured). Meanwhile, none of the forces properly monitored its officers while they were seconded.

It seems to me that the limited involvement of each of the forces might, instead of excusing it, have in fact been the key factor why the security breach happened.

Principle seven of the first schedule to the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) requires that

Appropriate technical and organisational measures shall be taken against unauthorised or unlawful processing of personal data and against accidental loss or destruction of, or damage to, personal data

Many many public (and private) sector data controllers are undertaking collaborative and partnership working, or are taking steps to do so. All responsible organisations are very aware, where they continue, either jointly or in common with other organisations, to determine the purposes for which and the manner in which any personal data are, or are to be, processed, that they remain a data controller, with the consequent responsibilities and liabilities. They are very aware of the IC’s Data Sharing Code of Practice.

And they are very aware that, if things go wrong with data-sharing, it will not normally be sufficient to point at a partner, and say “it was their fault”, or, even less, for all partners to shrug their shoulders and say, “that wasn’t our responsibility”.

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Filed under Data Protection, data sharing, enforcement, Information Commissioner, monetary penalty notice, police, Uncategorized