Category Archives: GDPR

An enforcement gap?

ICO wants 200 more staff for GDPR , but its Board think there’s a risk it will instead be losing them

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is, without doubt, a major reconfiguring of European data protection law. And quite rightly, in the lead-up to its becoming fully applicable on 25 May next year, most organisations are considering how best they can comply with its obligations, and, where necessary, effecting changes to achieve that compliance. As altruistic as some organisations are, a major driver for most is the fear that, under GDPR, regulatory sanctions can be severe. Regulators (in the UK this is the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO)) will retain powers to force organisations to do, or to stop, something (equivalent to an enforcement notice under our current Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA)), but they will also have the power to levy civil administrative fines of up to €20 million, or 4% of annual global turnover. Much media coverage has, understandably, if misleadingly, focused on these increased “fining” powers (the maximum monetary under the DPA is £500,000). I use the word “misleadingly”, because it is by no means clear that regulators will use the full fining powers available to them: GDPR provides regulators with many other options (see Article 58) and recital 129 in particular states that measures taken should be

appropriate, necessary and proportionate in view of ensuring compliance with this Regulation [emphasis added]

Commentators stressing the existence of these potentially huge administrative fines should be referred to these provisions of GDPR. 

But in the UK, at least, another factor has to be born in mind, and that is the regulator’s capacity to effectively enforce the law. In March this year, the Information Commissioner herself, Elizabeth Denham, told the House of Lords EU Home Affairs Sub-Committee that with the advent of GDPR she was going to need more resource

With the coming of the General Data Protection Regulation we will have more responsibilities, we will have new enforcement powers. So we are putting in new measures to be able to address our new regulatory powers…We have given the government an estimate that we will need a further 200 people in order to be able to do the job.

Those who rather breathlessly reported this with headlines such as “watchdog to hire hundreds more staff” seem to have forgotten the old parental adage of “I want doesn’t always get”. For instance, I want a case of ’47 Cheval Blanc delivered to my door by January Jones, but I’m not planning a domestic change programme around the possibility.

In fact, the statement by Denham might fall into a category best described as “aspirational”, or even “pie in the sky”, when one notes that the ICO Management Board recently received an item on corporate risk, the minutes from which state that

Concern was expressed about the risk of losing staff as GDPR implementation came closer. There remained a risk that the ICO might lose staff in large numbers, but to-date the greater risk was felt to be that the ICO could lose people in particular roles who, because of their experience, were especially hard to replace.

The ICO has long been based in the rather upmarket North West town of Wilmslow (the detailed and parochial walking directions from the railway station to the office have always rather amused me). There is going to be a limited pool of quality candidates there, and ICO pays poorly: current vacancies show case officers being recruited at starting salary of £19,527, and I strongly suspect case officers are the sort of extra staff Denham is looking at.

If ICO is worried about GDPR being a risk to staff retention (no doubt on the basis that better staff will get poached by higher paying employers, keen to have people on board with relevant regulatory experience), and apparently can’t pay a competitive wage, how on earth is it going to retain (or replace) them, and then recruit 200 more, from those sleepy Wilmslow recruitment fairs?

I write this blogpost, I should stress, not in order to mock or criticise Denham’s aspirations – she is absolutely right to want more staff, and to highlight the fact to Westminster. Rather, I write it because I agree with her, and because, unless someone stumps up some significant funding, I fear that the major privacy benefits that GDPR should bring for individuals (and the major sanctions against organisations for serious non-compliance) will not be realised.

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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Making even more criminals

Norfolk Police want your dashcam footage. Do you feel lucky, punk?

I wrote recently about the change to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) registration process, which enables domestic users of CCTV to notify the ICO of that fact, and pay the requisite fee of £35. I noted that this meant that

it is the ICO’s apparent view that if you use CCTV in your household and capture footage outside the boundaries of your property, you are required to register this fact publicly with them, and pay a £35 fee. The clear implication, in fact the clear corollary, is that failure to do so is a criminal offence.

I didn’t take issue with the correctness of the legal position, but I went on to say that

The logical conclusion…here is that anyone who takes video footage anywhere outside their home must register

I even asked the ICO, via Twitter, whether users of dashcams should also register, to which I got the reply

If using dashcam to process personal data for purposes not covered by domestic exemption then would need to comply with [the Data Protection Act 1998]

This subject was moved from the theoretical to the real today, with news that Norfolk Constabulary are encouraging drivers using dashcams to send them footage of “driving offences witnessed by members of the public”.

Following the analyses of the courts, and the ICO, as laid out here and in my previous post, such usage cannot avail itself of the exemption from notification for processing of personal data “only” for domestic purposes, so one must conclude that drivers targeted by Norfolk Constabulary should notify, and pay a £35 fee.

At this rate, the whole of the nation would eventually notify. Fortunately (or not) the General Data Protection Regulation becomes directly applicable from May next year. It will remove the requirement to give notification of processing. Those wishing, then, to avoid the opprobrium of being a common criminal have ten months to send their fee to the ICO. Others might question how likely it is that the full force of the law will discover their criminality, and prosecute, in that short time period.

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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Making criminals of us all

The Information Commissioner thinks that countless households operating CCTV systems need to register this, and pay a £35 fee for doing so. If they don’t, they might be committing a crime. The Commissioner is probably mostly correct, but it’s a bit more complex than that, for reasons I’ll explain in this post.

Back in 2014, to the surprise of no one who had thought about the issues, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) held that use of domestic CCTV to capture footage of identifiable individuals in public areas could not attract the exemption at Article 3(2) of the European data protection directive for processing of personal data

by a natural person in the course of a purely personal or household activity

Any use of CCTV, said the CJEU, for the protection of a house or its occupiers but which also captures people in a public space is thus subject to the remaining provisions of the directive:

the operation of a camera system, as a result of which a video recording of people is stored on a continuous recording device such as a hard disk drive, installed by an individual on his family home for the purposes of protecting the property, health and life of the home owners, but which also monitors a public space, does not amount to the processing of data in the course of a purely personal or household activity, for the purposes of that provision

As some commentators pointed out at the time, the effect of this ruling was potentially to place not just users of domestic CCTV systems under the ambit of data protection law, but also, say, car drivers using dashcams, cyclists using helmetcams, and many other people using image recording devices in public for anything but their own domestic purposes.

Under the directive, and the UK Data Protection Act 1998, any data controller processing personal data without an exemption (such as the one for purely personal or household activity) must register the fact with the relevant supervisory authority, which in the UK is the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). Failure to register in circumstances under which a data controller should register is a criminal offence punishable by a fine. There is a two-tier fee for making an entry in the ICO’s register, set at £35 for most data controllers, and £500 for larger ones.

For some time the ICO has advised corporate data controllers that if they use CCTV on their premises they will need to register:


But I recently noticed that the registration page itself had changed, and that there is now a separate button to register “household CCTV”


If one clicks that button one is taken to a page which informs that, indeed, a £35 fee is payable, and that the information provided will be published online 


There is a link to the ICO’s overarching privacy notice [ed. you’re going to have to tighten that up for GDPR, guys] but the only part of that notice which talks about the registration process relates only to “businesses”


Continuing the household CCTV registration process, one then gets to the main screen, which requires that the responsible person in the household identify themselves as data controller, and give either their household or email address for publication


What this all means is that it is the ICO’s apparent view that if you use CCTV in your household and capture footage outside the boundaries of your property, you are required to register this fact publicly with them, and pay a £35 fee. The clear implication, in fact the clear corollary, is that failure to do so is a criminal offence.

(In passing, there is a problem here: the pages and the process miss the point that for the registration to be required, the footage needs to be capturing images of identifiable individuals, otherwise no personal data is being processed, and data protection law is simply not engaged. What if someone has installed a “nest cam” in a nearby wooded area? Is ICO saying they are committing a criminal offence if they fail to register this? Also, what if the footage does capture identifiable individuals outside the boundaries of a household, but the footage is only taken for household, rather than crime reduction purposes? The logical conclusion of the ICO pages here is that anyone who takes video footage anywhere outside their home must register, which contradicts their guidance elsewhere.)

What I find particularly surprising about all this is that, although fundamentally it is correct as a matter of law (following the Ryneš decision by the CJEU), I have seen no publicity from the ICO about this pretty enormous policy change. Imagine how many households potentially *should* register, and how many won’t? And, therefore, how many the ICO is implying are committing a criminal offence?

And one thing that is really puzzling me is why this change, now? The CJEU ruling was thirty months ago, and in another eleven months, European data protection law will change, removing – in the UK also – the requirement to register in these circumstances. If it was so important for the ICO to effect these changes before then, why keep it quiet?

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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An adequate response to Brexit?

[This post was updated on 01.08.16 to include a comment from the ICO]

The mysterious case of the vanishing ICO post-Brexit statement 

On 24 June, as 48% of the UK was holding its head in its hands and wondering what the hell the other 52% had done, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) issued a statement. It said

If the UK is not part of the EU, then upcoming EU reforms to data protection law would not apply directly to the UK. But if the UK wants to trade with the Single Market on equal terms we would have to prove ‘adequacy’ – in other words UK data protection standards would have to be equivalent to the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation framework starting in 2018.

I have a screenshot of the statement:

Untitled

Why a screenshot? Well, because if you follow the url for the page in question (https://ico.org.uk/about-the-ico/news-and-events/news-and-blogs/2016/06/referendum-result-response/) it now redirects to a different page, containing an “updated” statement from former Commissioner Chris Graham:

Over the coming weeks we will be discussing with Government the implications of the referendum result and its impact on data protection reform in the UK.

With so many businesses and services operating across borders, international consistency around data protection laws and rights is crucial both to businesses and organisations and to consumers and citizens. The ICO’s role has always involved working closely with regulators in other countries, and that will continue to be the case.

Having clear laws with safeguards in place is more important than ever given the growing digital economy, and we will be speaking to government to present our view that reform of the UK law remains necessary.

One notes that references to adequacy, and equivalence with the General Data Protection Regulation, have disappeared. And one wonders why – does the ICO now think that a post-Brexit UK would not need to have equivalent standards to the GDPR? If so, that would certainly represent a bold position.  In a response to a request for a comment an ICO spokesperson informed me that

We noted the debates about different options that emerged following the referendum result and we decided to move to a simpler statement to avoid being too closely associated to any one particular position

I’m grateful to them for this, and it is in itself very interesting. Privacy Laws and Business recently informed their news feed subscribers that the government is keen to hear from stakeholders their views on the future of the UK data protection regime, so maybe everything is up for grabs.

But a fundamental point remains: if the EU (and indeed the CJEU – see Schrems et al) currently has exacting data protection standards for external states to meet to secure trading rights, realistically could the UK adopt a GDPR-lite regime? It strikes me as a huge risk if we did. But then again, voting for Brexit struck me as a huge (and pointless) risk, and look what happened there.

Ultimately, I’m surprised and disappointed the ICO have resiled from their initial clear and sensible statement. I would have preferred that, rather than “noting the debates” about post-Brexit data protection, they actually directed and informed those debates.

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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A Massive Impact for the ICO?

[Edited to add: it is well worth reading the comments to this piece, especially the ones from Chris Pounder and Reuben Binns]

I needed a way to break a blogging drought, and something that was flagged up to me by a data protection colleague (thanks Simon!) provides a good opportunity to do so. It suggests that the drafting of the GDPR could lead to an enormous workload for the ICO.

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which entered into force on 24 May this year, and which will apply across the European Union from 25 May 2018, mandates the completion of Data Protection Impact Assessments (DPIAs) where indicated. Article 35 of the GDPR explains that

Where a type of processing in particular using new technologies, and taking into account the nature, scope, context and purposes of the processing, is likely to result in a high risk to the rights and freedoms of natural persons, the controller shall, prior to the processing, carry out an assessment of the impact of the envisaged processing operations on the protection of personal data

In the UK (and indeed elsewhere) we already have the concept of “Privacy Impact Assessments“, and in many ways all that the GDPR does is embed this area of good practice as a legal obligation. However, it also contains some ancillary obligations, one of which is to consult the supervisory authority, in certain circumstances, prior to processing. And here is where I get a bit confused.

Article 36 provides that

The controller shall consult the supervisory authority prior to processing where a data protection impact assessment under Article 35 indicates that the processing would result in a high risk in the absence of measures taken by the controller to mitigate the risk
[emphasis added]

A close reading of Article 36 results in this: if the data controller conducts a DPIA, and is of the view that if mitigating factors were not in place the processing would be high risk, it will have to consult supervisory authority (in the UK, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO)). This is odd: it effectively renders any mitigating measures irrelevant. And it appears directly to contradict what recital 84 says

Where a data-protection impact assessment indicates that processing operations involve a high risk which the controller cannot mitigate by appropriate measures in terms of available technology and costs of implementation, a consultation of the supervisory authority should take place prior to the processing [emphasis added]

So, the recital says the obligation to consult will arise where high risk is involved which the controller can’t mitigate, while the Article says the obligation will arise where high risk is involved notwithstanding any mitigation in place.

Clearly, the Article contains the specific legal obligation (the recital purports to set out the reason for the contents of the enacting terms), so the law will require data controllers in the UK to consult the ICO every time a DPIA identifies an inherently high risk processing activity, even if the data controller has measures in place fully to mitigate and contain the risk.

For example, let us imagine the following processing activity – collection of and storage of customer financial data for the purposes of fulfilling a web transaction. The controller might have robust data security measures in place, but Article 36 requires it to consider “what if those robust measures were not in place? would the processing be high risk?” To which the answer would have to be “yes” – because the customer data would be completely unprotected.

In fact, I would submit, if article 36 is given its plain meaning virtually any processing activity involving personal data, where there is an absence of mitigating measures, would be high risk, and create a duty to consult the ICO.

What this will mean in practice remains to be seen, but unless I am missing something (and I’d be delighted to be corrected if so), the GDPR is setting the ICO and other supervisory authorities up for a massive influx of work. With questions already raised about the ICO’s funding going forward, that is the last thing they are likely to need.

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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No Information Rights Levy for ICO – where now for funding?

The ICO’s plan for an “information rights levy” appears to have been scuppered by the government. But is retaining data protection notification fees the way to solve the funding problem?

Back in the heady days of January 2012, when a naive but optimistic European Commission proposed a General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), to replace the existing 1995 Directive, one of the less-commented-on proposals was to remove the requirement for data controllers to notify their processing activities to the national data protection authority. However, the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) certainly noticed it, because the implications were that, at a stroke, a large amount of ICO funding would disappear. Currently, section 18(5) of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), and accompanying secondary legislation, mean that data controllers (unless they have an exemption) must pay an annual fee to the ICO of either £35 or £500 (depending upon the size of the organisation). In 2012-2013 this equated to an estimated income of £17.4m, and this income effectively funds all of the ICO’s data protection regulatory actions (its FOI functions are funded by grant-in-aid from the Ministry of Justice).

Three years later, and the GDPR is still not with us. However, it will eventually be passed, and when it is, it seems certain that the requirement under European law to notify will be gone. Because of this, as the Justice Committee recognised in 2013, alternative ICO funding means need to be identified as soon as possible. The ICO’s preferred choice, and one which Christopher Graham has certainly been pushing for, was an “Information Rights Levy”, the details of which were not specified, but which it appears was proposed to be paid by data controllers and public authorities (subject to FOI) alike. In the 2013/14 ICO Annual Report Graham was bullish in calling for action:

Parliament needs to get on with the task of establishing a single, graduated information rights levy to fund the important work of the ICO as the effective upholder of our vital right to privacy and right to know

But this robust approach doesn’t seem to have worked. At a recent meeting of the ICO Management Board a much more pessimistic view emerges. In a report entitled “Registration Fee Strategy” it is said that

The ICO has previously highlighted the need for an ‘information rights fee’ or one fee, paid by organisations directly to the ICO, to fund all information rights activities. Given concerns across government that this would result in private sector cross subsidising public sector work, the ICO recognises that this is unlikely in the short term

The report goes on, therefore, to talk about proposed changes to the current fee/notification process, and about ways of identifying who needs to pay. 

But, oddly, it seems to assume that although the GDPR will remove the requirement for a data controller  to notify processing to the ICO, the UK will retain the discretion to continue with such arrangements (and to charge a fee). I’m not sure this is right. As I’ve written previously, under data protection law at least some recreational bloggers have a requirement to notify (and pay a fee), and the legal authorities are clear that the law’s ambit extends to, for instance, individuals operating domestic CCTV, if that CCTV covers public places where identifiable individuals are. Indeed, as the 2004 Lindqvist case found 

The act of referring, on an internet page, to various persons and identifying them by name or by other means, for instance by giving their telephone number…constitutes ‘the processing of personal data…[and] is not covered by any of the exceptionsin Article 3(2) of Directive 95/46 [section 36 of the DPA transposes Article 3(2) into domestic law]

It is arguable that, to varying extents, we are all data controllers now (and ones who will struggle to avail ourselves of the data protection exemption for domestic purposes). Levying a fee on all of us, in order that we can lawfully express ourselves, has the potential to be a serious infringement of our right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and even more directly, Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

The problem of how to effectively fund the ICO in a time of austerity is a challenging one, and I don’t envy those at the ICO and in government who are trying to solve it, but levying a tax on freedom of expression (which notification arguably already is, and would almost certainly be if the GDPR doesn’t actually require notification) is not the way to do so.

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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Vidal-Hall v Google, and the rise of data protection ambulance-chasing

Everyone knows the concept of ambulance chasers – personal injury lawyers who seek out victims of accidents or negligence to help/persuade the latter to make compensation claims. With today’s judgment in the Court of Appeal in the case of Vidal-Hall & Ors v Google [2015] EWCA Civ 311 one wonders if we will start to see data protection ambulance chasers, arriving at the scene of serious “data breaches” with their business cards.

This is because the Court has made a definitive ruling on the issue, discussed several times previously on this blog, of whether compensation can be claimed under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) in circumstances where a data subject has suffered distress but no tangible, pecuniary damage. Section 13 of the DPA provides that

(1)An individual who suffers damage by reason of any contravention by a data controller of any of the requirements of this Act is entitled to compensation from the data controller for that damage.

(2)An individual who suffers distress by reason of any contravention by a data controller of any of the requirements of this Act is entitled to compensation from the data controller for that distress if—

(a)the individual also suffers damage by reason of the contravention

This differs from the wording of the European Data Protection Directive 95/46/ec, which, at Article 23(1) says

Member States shall provide that any person who has suffered damage as a result of an unlawful processing operation or of any act incompatible with the national provisions adopted pursuant to this Directive is entitled to receive compensation from the controller for the damage suffered

It can be seen that, in the domestic statutory scheme “distress” is distinct from “damage”, but in the Directive, there is just a single category of “damage”. The position until relatively recently, following Johnson v Medical Defence Union [2007] EWCA Civ 262, had been that it meant pecuniary damage, and this in turn meant, as Buxton LJ said in that case, that “section 13 distress damages are only available if damage in the sense of pecuniary loss has been suffered”. So, absent pecuniary damage, no compensation for distress was available (except in certain specific circumstances involving processing of personal data for journalistic, literary or artistic purposes). But, this, said Lord Dyson and Lady Justice Sharp, in a joint judgment, was wrong, and, in any case, they were not bound by Johnson because the relevant remarks in that case were in fact obiter.  In fact, they said, section 13(2) DPA was incompatible with Article 23 of the Directive:

What is required in order to make section 13(2) compatible with EU law is the disapplication of section 13(2), no more and no less. The consequence of this would be that compensation would be recoverable under section 13(1) for any damage suffered as a result of a contravention by a data controller of any of the requirements of the DPA

As Christopher Knight says, in a characteristically fine and exuberant piece on the Panopticon blog, “And thus, section 13(2) was no more”.

And this means a few things. It certainly means that it will be much easier for an aggrieved data subject to bring a claim for compensation against a data controller which has contravened its obligations under the DPA in circumstances where there is little, or no, tangible or pecuniary damage, but only distress. It also means that we may well start to see the rise of data protection ambulance chasers – the DPA may not give rise to massive settlements, but it is a relatively easy claim to make – a contravention is often effectively a matter of fact, or is found to be such by the Information Commissioner, or is conceded/admitted by the data controller – and there is the prospect of group litigation (in 2013 Islington Council settled claims brought jointly by fourteen claimants following disclosure of their personal data to unauthorised third parties – the settlement totalled £43,000).

I mentioned in that last paragraph that data controller sometimes concede or admit to contraventions of their obligations under the DPA. Indeed, they are expected to by the Information Commissioner, and the draft European General Data Protection Regulation proposes to make it mandatory to do so, and to inform data subjects. And this is where I wonder if we might see another effect of the Vidal-Hall case – if data controller know that by owning up to contraventions they may be exposing themselves to multiple legal claims for distress compensation, they (or their shareholders, or insurers) may start to question why they should do this. Breach notification may be seen as even more of a risky exercise than it is now.

There are other interesting aspects to the Vidal-Hall case – misuse of private information is, indeed, a tort, allowing service of the claims against Google outside jurisdiction, and there are profound issues regarding the definition of personal data which are undecided and, if they go to trial, will be extremely important – but the disapplying of section 13(2) DPA looks likely to have profound effects for data controllers, for data subjects, for lawyers and for the landscape of data protection litigation in this country.

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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Do bloggers need to register with the ICO?

A strict reading of data protection law suggests many (if not all) bloggers should register with the ICO, even though the latter disagrees. And, I argue, the proposal for an Information Rights Levy runs the risk of being notification under a different name

Part III of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) gives domestic effect to Article 18 of the European Data Protection Directive (the Directive). It describes the requirement that data controllers notify the fact that they are processing personal data, and the details of that processing, to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). It is, on one view, a rather quaint throwback to the days when processing of personal data was seen as an activity undertaken by computer bureaux (a term found in the predecessor Data Protection Act 1984). However, it is law which is very much in force, and processing personal data without a valid notification, in circumstances where the data controller had an obligation to notify, is a criminal offence (section 21(1) DPA). Moreover, it is an offence which is regularly prosecuted by the ICO (eleven such prosecutions so far this year).

These days, it is remarkably easy to find oneself in the position of being a data controller (“a person who (either alone or jointly or in common with other persons) determines the purposes for which and the manner in which any personal data are, or are to be, processed”). There are, according to the ICO, more than 370,000 data controllers registered. Certainly, if you are a commercial enterprise which in any way electronically handles personal data of customers or clients it is almost inevitable that you will be a data controller with an obligation to register. The exemptions to registering are laid out in regulations, and are quite restrictive – they are in the main, the following (wording taken from the ICO Notification Handbook)

Data controllers who only process personal information for: staff administration (including payroll); advertising, marketing and public relations (in connection with their own business activity); and accounts and records.
Some not-for-profit organisations.
Maintenance of a public register.
Processing personal information for judicial functions.
Processing personal information without an automated system such
as a computer.
But there is one other, key exemption. This is not within the notification regulations, but at section 36 of the DPA itself, and it exempts personal data from the whole of the Act if it is
processed by an individual only for the purposes of that individual’s personal, family or household affairs (including recreational purposes)
Thus, if you, for instance, keep a record of your children’s medical histories on your home computer, you are not caught by any of the DPA (and not required to notify with the ICO).Where this becomes interesting (it does become interesting, honestly) is when the very expansive interpretation the ICO gives to this “domestic purposes exemption” is considered in view of the extent to which people’s domestic affairs – including recreational purposes – now take place in a more public sphere, whereby large amounts of information are happily published by individuals on social media. As I have written elsewhere, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) held in 2003, in the Lindqvist case, that the publishing of information on the internet could not be covered by the relevant domestic purposes exemption in the Directive. The ICO and the UK has, ever since, been in conflict with this CJEU authority, a point illustrated by the trenchant criticism delivered in the High Court in the judgment by Tugendhat J in The Law Society v Kordowski.

But I think there is a even more stark illustration of the implications of an expansive interpretation of the section 36 exemption, and I provide it. On this blog I habitually name and discuss identifiable individuals – this is processing of personal data, and I determine the purposes for which, and the manner in which, this personal data is processed. Accordingly, I become a data controller, according to the definitions at section 1(1) of the DPA. So, do I need to notify my processing with the ICO? The answer, according to the ICO, is “no”. They tell me

from the information you have provided it would be unlikely that you would be required to register in respect of your blogs and tweets
But I don’t understand this. I cannot see any exemption which applies to my processing – unless it is section 36. But in what way can I seriously claim that I am processing personal data only for my domestic (including recreational) purposes. Yes, blogging about information rights is partly a recreation to me (some might say that makes me odd) but I cannot pretend that I have no professional aims and purposes in doing so. Accordingly, the processing cannot only be for domestic purposes.I have asked the ICO to confirm what, in their view, exempts me from notification. I hope they can point me to something I have overlooked, because, firstly, anything that avoids my having to pay an annual notification fee of £35 would be welcome, and secondly, I find it rather uncomfortable to be on the receiving end of my own personal analysis that I’m potentially committing a criminal offence, even if the lead prosecutor assures me I’m not.

The point about the notification fee leads to me on to a further issue. As I say above, notification is in some ways rather quaint – it harks back to days when processing of personal data was a specific, discrete activity, and looks odd in a world where, with modern technology, millions of activities every day meet the definition of “processing personal data”. No doubt for these reasons, the concept of notification with a data protection authority is missing from the draft General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) currently slouching its way through the European legislative process. However, a proposal by the ICO suggests that, at least in the domestic sphere, notification (in another guise), might remain under new law.The ICO, faced with the fact that its main funding stream (the annual notification fees from those 370,000-plus data controllers) would disappear if the GDPR is passed in its proposed form, is lobbying for an “information rights levy”. Christopher Graham said earlier this year

I would have thought  an information rights levy, paid for by public authorities and data controllers [is needed]. We would be fully accountable to Parliament for our spending.

and the fact that this proposal made its way into the ICO’s Annual Report  with Graham saying that Parliament needs to “get on with the task” of establishing the levy, suggests that it might well be something the Ministry of Justice agrees with. As the MoJ would be first in line to have make up the funding shortfall if a levy wasn’t introduced, it is not difficult to imagine it becoming a reality.

On one view, a levy makes perfect sense – a “tax” on those who process personal data. But looked at another way, it will potentially become another outmoded means of defining what a data controller is. One cannot imagine that, for instance, bloggers and other social media users will be expected to pay it, so it is likely that, in effect, those data controllers whom the ICO currently expects to notify will be those who are required to pay the levy. One imagines, also, that pour encorager les autres, it might be made a criminal offence not to pay the levy in circumstances where a data controller should pay it but fails to do so. In reality, will it just be a mirror-image of the current notification regime?

And will I still be analysing my own blogging as being processing that belongs to that regime, but with the ICO, for pragmatic, if not legally sound, reasons, deciding the opposite?

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Filed under Data Protection, Directive 95/46/EC, Europe, GDPR, parliament

ICO Social Media Guidance – Shirking Responsibility?

The Information Commissioner has issued guidance on when the Data Protection Act is held to apply to Social Networking and Online Forums. While I recognise the pragmatic approach it takes, it appears to be in conflict with the leading legal authorities.

The Guidance

Apparently without much fanfare, unless I’ve missed it or am ahead of it, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has issued guidance for the public on Social networking and online forums when does the DPA apply? The short answer, applying European law, should be “always”. But this would a) make the guidance rather short, and b) not be in line with the ICO’s persistent line that his office should not have to regulate what people say about each other on the internet.

The guidance says

The DPA contains an exemption for personal data that is processed by an individual for the purposes of their personal, family or household affairs. This exemption is often referred to as the ‘domestic purposes’ exemption. It will apply whenever an individual uses an online forum purely for domestic purposes

There are several interesting things about this position statement. First, it omits that the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) says that personal data only processed for domestic purposes is exempt from the obligations under the Act. Second, it also, strangely, omits the phrase “including recreational purposes” which arguably supports the ICO’s position (although, as I will mention later, it is controversial wording). Third, it is in direct contradiction of the leading European judicial authority on the exemption.

The guidance goes on to accept that some forms of individual self-expression on the internet will not be caught by the domestic purposes exemption, but as a whole (see the section entitled “ICO involvement in complaints against those running social network sites, organisations and individuals”) it appears to be an exercise in saying “don’t come to us if you don’t like what someone is saying about you on the internet”.

This subject is, of course, of considerable current relevance, given concerns expressed that a regulatory scheme imposed subsequent to the Leveson inquiry might end up applying to the blogosphere, or even to social media in general. I’ve written previously on this, arguing that existing data protection law already applies to such activities.

The Law

Article 3(2) of Directive 95/46/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 24 October 1995 on the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data and on the free movement of such data (“the Directive”) says that

This Directive shall not apply to the processing of personal data…by a natural person in the course of a purely personal or household activity

and recital 12 to the Directive says that the data protection principles contained therein do not apply to the processing

of data carried out by a natural person in the exercise of activities which are exclusively personal or domestic, such as correspondence and the holding of records of addresses

These provisions are given domestic effect in section 36 of the DPA, which says

Personal data processed by an individual only for the purposes of that individual’s personal, family or household affairs (including recreational purposes) are exempt from the data protection principles and the provisions of Parts II and III [emphasis added]

In the leading European case on the provisions of the Directive, Lindqvist (Approximation of laws) [2003] EUECJ C-101/01, the European Court of Justice held that

[the] exception must…be interpreted as relating only to activities which are carried out in the course of private or family life of individuals, which is clearly not the case with the processing of personal data consisting in publication on the internet so that those data are made accessible to an indefinite number of people

Lest there be any doubt as to the meaning of this, the ECJ issued a press release to accompany the judgment, which said

the act of referring, on an internet page, to various persons and identifying them by name…does not fall within the category of activities for the purposes…of purely personal or domestic activities, which are outside the scope of the directive [emphasis in original]

Lindqvist is, I would submit, unequivocal authority for the proposition that referring to an identifiable person or persons on the internet constitutes the processing of personal data, and is processing which is not exempt under Article 3(2) of the Directive.

The ICO has never accepted that Lindqvist has general application to internet publication of personal data. For instance, the ICO’s internal 2011 guidance on “Dealing with complaints about information published online” says

the Lindqvist judgement [sic]…related to a specific set of circumstances and cannot be applied to all cases of online publication

Try as I might I cannot square this with ECJ’s authority in Lindqvist. Still less can I square with it the comment, in an ICO paper on the proposed General Data Protection Regulation that

There has been some suggestion the Regulation should be used to ‘implement’ the Lindqvist decision – in short meaning that information posted openly on the internet necessarily falls outside the law’s personal or household processing exemption. We never wholly accepted the reasoning in Lindqvist…
One might take a moment to reflect on what is being said here. The paper’s author appears to understand the meaning of Lindqvist, regarding the lack of exemption for information posted openly on the internet, but says the ICO doesn’t (wholly) accept what is the binding decision of the ECJ.
One possible justification for the position lies in the additional wording Parliament inserted into section 36 of the DPA relating to “recreational purposes” (although, as I note above, the new guidance doesn’t put much emphasis on this). It is perhaps possible to construe – as the ICO clearly does – this to permit the section 36 exemption to extend to internet publication of personal data. Indeed, the apparently interminable infraction proceedings brought against the UK by the European Commission (tracked doggedly by Dr Chris Pounder) for numerous examples of apparent lack of proper domestic implementation of the Directive include criticism that
the inclusion of “recreational purposes” in the Data Protection Act…in the Commission’s view appeared to be broader than household activities.
However, even if this addition of “recreational purposes” to the UK statutory scheme arguably extends – perhaps impermissibly – the ambit of the exemption, the ICO was told in unequivocal terms in The Law Society & Ors v Kordowski [2011] EWHC 3185 (QB) that
The DPA does envisage that the Information Commissioner should consider what it is acceptable for one individual to say about another, because the First Data Protection Principle requires that data should be processed lawfully
In Kordowski the ICO had been asked by the Law Society to intervene to prevent the publication of defamatory and unfair postings on a website called “Solicitors from Hell”. The ICO had declined, citing – in a letter to the Law Society – the domestic purposes exemption as the reason for not investigating
I do sympathise with solicitors and others who may find it extremely difficult, and in many cases impossible, to have offensive material about them removed from the internet. Perhaps this is a case where the law is out of step with technology. However, I am afraid the DPA is simply not designed to deal with the sort of problem that you have brought to my attention.
Tugendhat J expressed his sympathy
with the Commissioner in what he says about the practical difficulties raised by cases such as the present. It is also beyond doubt that the DPA was not designed to deal with the way in which the internet now works
but said that the ICO had an obligation to investigate a complaint “where there is no room for argument that processing is unlawful”.
The ICO (in the form of David Smith, the Deputy Commissioner responsible for data protection) has argued that the mistake the ICO made in the Kordowski matter was in holding that the site owner and administrator (Kordowski himself) was covered by the section 32 exemption. He does not appear to accept that the people submitting the “ratings” and comments about solicitors were not covered by the same
we took the view, quite rightly I think, that the individuals who posted the comments on the Solicitors from Hell website are just individuals, they are acting in their personal, domestic capacity…I think where we actually went a bit wrong in our analysis…we said the Solicitors from Hell website doesn’t exercise control, is not a data controller and so is not caught by the law. When this case came to court, quite rightly the court looked in more detail at what the operators of the site did, the notice board and it was a lot more than just a notice board, they were actually charging people to put information there and charging solicitors to have information taken down…The intermediary there was clearly a data controller. But this establishing who is a data controller and who isn’t in this whole environment is extremely difficult. [from a transcript of an oral presentation]
While this is an interesting argument, that the site owner, as clearly the primary data controller, holds some sort of primary liability for publication on his or her site, while those posting on it are exempt because of the domestic purposes exemptions, it is hugely problematic. This is because, firstly, it is inconsistent with the judgment in Lindqvist and, secondly, becuase it tends towards an illogical argument that an individual commenter on a site, perhaps a social media site, posting a defamatory, or even a criminal, statement, does so only for domestic purposes.
European developments
In Kordowski the judge’s sympathy rested in part on the fact that the DPA, and the ICO who must regulate it, are creatures of the 1995 Directive
In 1995 search engines were in their infancy. Google was incorporated in 1998. There have been many developments since that time, including the increasing use of third party facilities
In Janaury 2012 the European Commission began the lengthy process of introducing a new European data protection framework. The draft General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) retains exemption provisions for domestic activities, and introduces new concepts: Article 2(2) states
This Regulation does not apply to the processing of personal data…by a natural person without any gainful interest in the course of its own exclusively personal or household activity [emphasis added]
and Recital 15 explains
This Regulation should not apply to processing of personal data by a natural person, which are exclusively personal or domestic, such as correspondence and the holding of addresses, and without any gainful interest and thus without any connection with a professional or commercial activity [emphasis added]
This might shift the scenery set by Lindqvist to a degree, and it is possible that the ICO’s guidance, although dealing with the current DPA, was written with an eye on the European developments. Indeed, the rest of Recital 15 says
the exemption should also not apply to controllers or processors which provide the means for processing personal data for such personal or domestic activities.
However, it is to be noted that Peter Hustinx, the European Data Protection Supervisor, did not think the draft domestic purposes provisions of the GDPR were adequate
Recital 15 indicates that the exception applies in the absence of gainful interest, but it does not address the common issue of processing of data for personal purposes ona wider scale, such as the publication of personal information within a social network…In line with the rulings of the Court of Justice in Lindquist and Satamedia, the EDPS suggests that a criterion be inserted to differentiate public and domestic activities based on the indefinite number of individuals who can access the information. This criterion should be understood as an indication that an indefinite number of contacts shall in principle mean that the household exemption does no longer apply. It is without prejudice to a stricter requirement for a genuine personal and private link, to prevent that individuals making data available to several hundreds or even thousands of individuals would automatically fall underthe exemption.
But a final development has occurred with the release on 31 May of Irish Presidency of the Council of the European Union’s Justice and Home Affairs draft compromise text which adds to Recital 15 the following words
Personal and household activities include social networking and on-line activity undertaken within the context of such personal and household activities.
One wonders if the ICO was aware, when drafting his Social Media Guidance, of this development. However, and while it remains to be seen what the GDPR will ultimately say, much could still turn on what “undertaken within the context” means within Recital 15.
And we should not get ahead of ourselves. The ICO regulates the DPA, and as the (European) law currently stands, the act of referring to a person on the internet does not attract the domestic purpose exemption. The ICO guidance implies it might. Will this be challenged?

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Filed under Data Protection, defamation, Europe, GDPR, Information Commissioner, social media