“GET BOOSTED NOW Every adult needs a COVID-19 booster vaccine to protect against Omicron. Get your COVID-19 vaccine or booster. See NHS website for details”
On Boxing Day, this wording appears to have been sent as an SMS in effect to every mobile telephone number in the UK. The relevant government web page explains that the message is part of the national “Get Boosted Now” campaign to protect against the Omicron variant of COVID-19. The web page also thanks the Mobile Network Operators for “their assistance in helping deliver the vitally important Get Boosted Now message”.
It is inevitable that questions may get raised raised about the legality of the SMSs under data protection law. What is important to note is that, although – to the extent that the sending involved the processing of personal data – the GDPR may apply (or, rather, the UK GDPR) the relevant law is actually the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (“PECR”). Under the doctrine of lex specialis where two laws govern the same situation, the more specific rules will prevail over more general rules. Put another way, if the more specific PECR can justify the sending of the SMSs, then the sending will also be justified under the more general provisions of UK GDPR.
Regulation 16A of PECR (inserted by a 2015 amendment), provides that where a “relevant communications provider” (in this case a Mobile Network Operator) is notified by a government minister (or certain other persons, such as chief constables) that an “emergency” has occurred, is occurring or is about to occur, and that it is expedient to use an emergency alert service, then the usual restrictions on the processing of traffic and location data can be disregarded. In this instance, given the wording on the government website, one assumes that such a notification was indeed made by a government minister under regulation 16A. (These are different emergency alerts to those proposed to be able to be sent under the National Emergency Alert system from 2022 which will not directly involve the mobile network operators.)
“Emergency” is not defined in PECR, so presumably will take its definition here from section 1(1)(a) of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 – “an event or situation which threatens serious damage to human welfare in a place in the United Kingdom”.
The effect of this is that, if the SMSs are legal under PECR, they will also be legal under Article 6(1)(c) and 6(1)(e) of the UK GDPR (on the grounds that processing is necessary for compliance with a legal obligation to which the controller is subject, and/or necessary for the performance of a task carried out in the public interest).
There is an interesting side note as to whether, even though the SMSs count as emergency alerts, they might also be seen as direct marketing messages under regulations 22 and 23 of PECR, thus requiring the content of the recipient before they could be sent. Under the current guidance from the Information Commissioner (ICO), one might argue that they would be. “Direct marketing” is defined in the Data Protection Act 2018 as “the communication (by whatever means) of advertising or marketing material which is directed to particular individuals” and the ICO defines it further by saying that this “covers any advertising or marketing material, not just commercial marketing. All promotional material falls within this definition, including material promoting the aims of not-for-profit organisations”. Following that line of thought, it is possible that the Omicron SMSs were both emergency alerts and direct marketing messages. This would be an odd state of affairs (and one doubts very much that a judge – or the ICO, if challenged on this – would actually agree with its own guidance and say that these SMSs were indeed direct marketing messages). The ICO is in the process of updating its direct marketing guidance, and might be well advised to consider the issue of emergency alerts (which aren’t covered in the current consultation document).
[Edited to add: I don’t think what I say above necessarily covers all the legal issues, and no doubt there are aspects of this that could have been done better, but I doubt very much there is any substantive legal challenge which can be made.]
The views in this post (and indeed most posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.