Online Recruitment Firm Receives £130,000 PECR Fine

On 10th April 2023, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) fined Join The Triboo Limited £130,000 for sending 107 million spam emails targeting jobseekers. The an online recruitment firm was found to have breached the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR) by sending unsolicited emails to individuals without their consent.

The PECR is a set of regulations, which amongst other things, govern the use of electronic communications (e.g. email, text message, and automated calling systems) for direct marketing purposes. In some cases, the regulations require that individuals must give their consent before receiving marketing messages, including job vacancies. When it comes to e mails, businesses cannot send unsolicited emails to individuals unless they have obtained their explicit consent to do so.

The UK General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which also applies to electronic communications involving personal data, defines consent as “any freely given, specific, informed and unambiguous indication of the data subject’s wishes by which he or she, by a statement or by a clear affirmative action, signifies agreement to the processing of personal data relating to him or her.”

This means that businesses must provide individuals with clear and concise information about what data they are collecting, how they will use it, and who they will share it with. Individuals must then be given the option to give their consent, and this consent must be freely given and specific to the intended processing activity. Businesses must also provide individuals with the option to withdraw their consent at any time.

Join the Triboo Limited was found to have breached PECR by sending unsolicited emails to individuals without their consent. The emails were sent in bulk to individuals who had not signed up to receive job alerts from the firm, and the content of the emails did not provide individuals with clear and concise information about the firm’s processing activities.

Andy Curry, ICO Head of Investigations, said:

“It’s an issue many of us face – opening up our email inboxes and it being filled with emails we did not ask for or consent to. This shouldn’t just be considered a fact of life – it is against the law.

We provide advice and support to legitimate companies that want to comply with the law. Last year, we released updated direct marketing guidance to help those very businesses.

That is, however, not what was happening in this case. This company did not properly seek permission from the people it chose to bombard with spam emails. The company used job seeking websites as a key component in its unlawful campaign.

In taking this action, we say to the public that we will continue to be on your side and protect you, and we say to any other organisation operating outside of the law that we will pursue every case like this brought to us to the fullest extent.”

The ICO’s decision to fine this online recruitment firm serves as a reminder of the importance of complying with data protection laws. This will enable businesses to build trust with their customers and create a safer, more secure online environment for everyone.

Our forthcoming PECR and Marketing workshop will consider this and other developments in detail. 

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Experian’s GDPR Appeal: Lawfulness, Fairness, and Transparency

On 20th February 2023, the First-Tier (Information Rights) Tribunal (FTT) overturned an Enforcement Notice issued against Experian by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). 

This case relates to Experian’s marketing arm, Experian Marketing Services (EMS) which provides analytics services for direct mail marketing companies. It obtains personal data from three types of sources; publicly available sources, third parties and Experian’s credit reference agency (CRA) business. The company processes this personal data to build profiles about nearly every UK adult. An individual profile can contain over 400 data points. The company sells access to this data to marketing companies that wish to improve the targeting of their postal direct marketing communications. 

The ICO issued an Enforcement Notice against Experian in April 2020, alleging several GDPR violations namely; Art. 5(1)(a) (Principle 1, Lawfulness, fairness, and transparency), Art. 6(1) (Lawfulness of processing) and Art. 14 (Information to be provided where personal data have not been obtained from the data subject). 

Fair and Transparent Processing: Art 5(1)(a) 

The ICO criticised Experian’s privacy notice for being unclear and for not emphasising the “surprising” aspects of Experian’s processing. It ordered Experian to: 

  • Provide an up-front summary of Experian’s direct marketing processing. 
  • Put “surprising” information (e.g. regarding profiling via data from multiple sources) on the first or second layer of the notice. 
  • Use clearer and more concise language. 
  • Disclose each source and use of data and explain how data is shared, providing examples.  

The ICO also ordered Experian to stop using credit reference agency data (CRA data) for any purpose other than those requested by Data Subjects. 

Lawful Processing: Arts. 5(1)(a) and 6(1) 

All processing of personal data under the GDPR requires a legal basis. Experian processed all personal data held for marketing purposes on the basis of its legitimate interests, including personal data that was originally collected on the basis of consent. Before relying on legitimate interests, controllers must conduct a “legitimate interests assessment” to balance the risks of processing the risks. Experian had done this, but the ICO said the company had got the balance wrong. It ordered Experian to: 

  • Delete all personal data that had been collected via consent and was subsequently being processed on the basis of Experian’s legitimate interests. 
  • Stop processing personal data where an “objective” legitimate interests assessment revealed that the risks of the processing outweigh the benefits. 
  • Review the GDPR compliance of all third parties providing Experian with personal data. 
  • Stop processing any personal data that has not been collected in a GDPR-compliant way. 

Transparency: Art. 14 

Art. 14 GDPR requires controllers to provide notice to data subjects when obtaining personal data from a third-party or publicly available source. Experian did not do provide such notices relying on the exceptions in Art 14. 

Where Experian had received personal data from third parties, it said that it did not need to provide a notice because “the data subject already has the information”. It noted that before a third party sent Experian personal data, the third party would provide Data Subjects with its own privacy notice. That privacy notice would contain links to Experian’s privacy notice.
Where Experian had obtained personal data from a publicly available source, such as the electoral register, it claimed that to provide a notice would involve “disproportionate effort”. 

The ICO did not agree that these exceptions applied to Experian, and ordered it to: 

  • Send an Art. 14 notice to all Data Subjects whose personal data had been obtained from a third-party source or (with some exceptions) a publicly available source. 
  • Stop processing personal data about Data Subjects who had not received an Art. 14 notice. 

The FTT Decision  

The FTT found that Experian committed only two GDPR violations: 

  • Failing to provide an Art. 14 notice to people whose data had been obtained from publicly available sources. 
  • Processing personal data on the basis of “legitimate interests” where that personal data had been originally obtained on the basis of “consent” (by the time of the hearing, Experian had stopped doing this). 

The FTT said that the ICO’s Enforcement Notice should have given more weight to:  

  • The costs of complying with the corrective measures. 
  • The benefits of Experian’s processing. 
  • The fact that Data Subjects would (supposedly) not want to receive an Art. 14 notice. 

The FTT overturned most of the ICO’s corrective measures. The only new obligation on Experian is to send Art. 14 notices in future to some people whose data comes from publicly available sources. 

FTT on Transparency 

Experian had improved its privacy notice before the hearing, and the FTT was satisfied that it met the Art. 14 requirements. It agreed that Experian did not need to provide a notice to Data Subjects where it had received their personal data from a third party. The FTT said that “…the reasonable data subject will be familiar with hyperlinks and how to follow them”.
People who wanted to know about Experian’s processing had the opportunity to learn about it via third-party privacy notices. 

However, the FTT did not agree with Experian’s reliance on the “disproportionate effort” exception. In future, Experian will need to provide Art. 14 notices to some Data Subjects whose personal data comes from publicly available sources. 

FTT on Risks of Processing 

An ICO expert witness claimed that Experian’s use of CRA data presented a risk to Data Subjects. The witness later admitted he had misunderstood this risk. The FTT found that Experian’s use of CRA data actually decreased the risk of harm to Data Subjects. For example, Experian used CRA data to “screen out” data subjects with poor credit history from receiving marketing about low-interest credit cards. The FTT found that this helped increase the accuracy of marketing and was therefore beneficial. As such, the FTT found that the ICO had not properly accounted for the benefits of Experian’s processing of CRA data. 

The ICO’s Planned Appeal 

The FTT’s decision focuses heavily on whether Experian’s processing was likely to cause damage or distress to Data Subjects. Because the FTT found that the risk of damage was low, Experian could rely on exceptions that might not have applied to riskier processing.  

The ICO has confirmed that it will appeal the decision. There are no details yet on their arguments but they may claim that the FTT took an excessively narrow interpretation of privacy harms. 

This and other data protection developments will be discussed in detail on our forthcoming  GDPR Update  workshop. There are only 3 places left on our next Advanced Certificate in GDPR Practice.  

Rogue Employees and Personal Data

Section 170 of the Data Protection Act 2018 makes it a criminal offence for a person to knowingly or recklessly:

(a) obtain or disclose personal data without the consent of the controller,

(b) procure the disclosure of personal data to another person without the consent of the controller, or

(c) after obtaining personal data, to retain it without the consent of the person who was the controller in relation to the personal data when it was obtained.

Section 170 is similar to the offence under section 55 of the old Data Protection Act 1998 which was often used to prosecute employees who had accessed healthcare and financial records without a legitimate reason. Two recent prosecutions highlight the willingness of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to use section 170 to make examples of individuals who seek to access/steal data from their employers for personal gain. 

In January, Asif Iqbal Khan pleaded guilty to stealing data of accident victims whilst working as a Customer Solutions Specialist for the RAC. Over a single month in 2019, the RAC had received 21 complaints from suspicious drivers who received calls from claims management companies following accidents in which the RAC had assisted.

A review of individuals that had accessed these claims found that Mr Khan was the only employee to access all 21. An internal investigation later reported suspicious behaviour from Mr Khan including taking photos of his computer screen with his phone. A search warrant, executed by the ICO, seized two phones from Mr Khan and a customer receipt for £12,000. The phones contained photos of data relating to over 100 accidents.

Khan appeared at Dudley Magistrates Court in January 2023 where he pleaded guilty to two counts of stealing data in breach of Section 170 of the DPA 2018. He was fined £5,000 and ordered to pay a victim surcharge as well as court costs.

This is the second recent prosecution under Section 170. In August last year, Christopher O’Brien, a former health adviser at the South Warwickshire NHS Foundation Trust pleaded guilty to accessing medical records of patients without a valid legal reason.

An ICO investigation found that he unlawfully accessed the records of 14 patients, who were known personally to him, between June and December 2019. One of the victims said the breach left them worried and anxious about O’Brien having access to their health records, with another victim saying it put them off going to their doctor. O’Brien was ordered to pay £250 compensation to 12 patients, totalling £3,000.

Of course a S.170 prosecution would have a much greater deterrent effect if the available sanctions included a custodial sentence. Successive Information Commissioners have argued for this but to no avail. This has led to some cases being prosecuted under section 1 of the Computer Misuse Act 1990 which carries tougher sentences including a maximum of 2 years imprisonment on indictment.  In July last year, a woman who worked for Cheshire Police pleaded guilty to using the police data systems to check up on ex-partners and in August, the ICO commenced criminal proceedings against eight individuals over the alleged unlawful accessing and obtaining of customers’ personal data from vehicle repair garages to generate potential leads for personal injury claims.

Employer Liability

If a disgruntled or rogue employee commits an offence under section 170, might their employer also be liable for the consequences?

In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that as an employer, Morrisons Supermarket could not be held responsible when an employee, Andrew Skelton, uploaded a file containing the payroll data of thousands of Morrisons employees to a publicly accessible website as well as leaking it to several newspapers. The court decided that, whatever Skelton was doing when he disclosed his colleagues’ personal data, he was not acting “in the course of his employment”, and accordingly no vicarious liability could be imposed under the old Data Protection Act 1998.

However, Morrisons lost on the argument that the DPA 1998 operated so as to exclude vicarious liability completely. This principle can also be applied to the GDPR and so employers can “never say never” when it comes to vicariously liability for malicious data breaches by staff. It all depends on the facts of the breach.

This case only went as far as it did because the Morrisons employees failed to show, at first instance, that Morrisons was primarily liable for the data breach. If an employer fails to comply with its security obligations in a manner that is causally relevant to a rogue employee’s actions, it can still be exposed to primary liability under Article 32 of GDPR as well as the 6th Data Protection Principle which both impose obligations to ensure the security of personal data.

This and other data protection developments will be discussed in detail on our forthcoming  GDPR Update  workshop. There are only 3 places left on our next Advanced Certificate in GDPR Practice.

ICO Reprimand for Misuse of Children’s Data: A Proportionate Response or a Let Off?

Last week, the Department for Education received a formal reprimand from the Information Commissioner’s Office(ICO) over a “serious breach” of the GDPR involving the unauthorised sharing of up to 28 million children’s personal data. But the Department has avoided a fine, despite a finding of “woeful” data protection practices.

The reprimand followed the ICO’s investigation into the sharing of personal data stored on the Learning Records Service (LRS) database, for which the DfE is the Data Controller. LRS provides a record of pupils’ qualifications that education providers can access. It contains both personal and Special Category Data and at the time of the incident there were 28 million records stored on it. Some of those records would have pertained to children aged 14 and over. 

The ICO started its investigation after receiving a breach report from the DfE about the unauthorised access to the LRS database. The DfE had only become aware of the breach after an exposé in a national Sunday newspaper.

The ICO found that the DfE’s poor due diligence meant that it continued to grant Trustopia access to the database when it advised the DfE that it was the new trading name for Edududes Ltd, which had been a training provider. Trustopia was in fact a screening company and used the database to provide age verification services to help gambling companies confirm customers were over 18. The ICO ruled that the DfE failed to:

  • protect against the unauthorised processing by third parties of data held on the LRS database for reasons other than the provision of educational services. Data Subjects were unaware of the processing and could not object or otherwise withdraw from this processing. Therefore the DfE failed to process the data fairly and lawfully in accordance with Article 5 (1)(a). 
  • have appropriate oversight to protect against unauthorised processing of personal data held on the LRS database and had also failed to ensure its confidentiality in accordance with Article 5 (1)(f). 

The ICO conducted a simultaneous investigation into Trustopia, during which the company confirmed it no longer had access to the database and the cache of data held in temporary files had been deleted. Trustopia was dissolved before the ICO investigation concluded and therefore regulatory action was not possible.

The DfE has been ordered to implement the following five measures to improve its compliance: 

  1. Improve transparency around the processing of the LRS database so Data Subjects are aware and are able to exercise their Data Subject rights, in order to satisfy the requirements of Article 5 (1)(a) of the UK GDPR. 
  • Review all internal security procedures on a regular basis to identify any additional preventative measures that can be implemented. This would reduce the risk of a recurrence to this type of incident and assist compliance with Article 5 (1)(f) of the UK GDPR. 
  • Ensure all relevant staff are made aware of any changes to processes as a result of this incident, by effective communication and by providing clear guidance. 
  • Complete a thorough and detailed Data Protection Impact Assessment, which adequately assesses the risk posed by the processing. This will enable the DfE to identify and mitigate the data protection risks for individuals. 

This investigation could, and many would say should, have resulted in a fine. However, in June 2022 John Edwards, the Information Commissioner, announced a new approach towards the public sector with the aim to reduce the impact of fines on the sector. Had this new trial approach not been in place, the DfE would have been issued with a fine of over £10 million. In a statement, John Edwards said:

“No-one needs persuading that a database of pupils’ learning records being used to help gambling companies is unacceptable. Our investigation found that the processes put in place by the Department for Education were woeful. Data was being misused, and the Department was unaware there was even a problem until a national newspaper informed them.

“We all have an absolute right to expect that our central government departments treat the data they hold on us with the utmost respect and security. Even more so when it comes to the information of 28 million children.

“This was a serious breach of the law, and one that would have warranted a £10 million fine in this specific case. I have taken the decision not to issue that fine, as any money paid in fines is returned to government, and so the impact would have been minimal. But that should not detract from how serious the errors we have highlighted were, nor how urgently they needed addressing by the Department for Education.”

The ICO also followed its new public sector enforcement approach when issuing a reprimand to NHS Blood and Transplant Service. In August 2019, the service inadvertently released untested development code into a live system for matching transplant list patients with donated organs. This error led to five adult patients on the non-urgent transplant list not being offered transplant livers at the earliest possible opportunity. The ICO said that, if the revised enforcement approach had not been in place, the service would have received a fine of £749,856. 

Some would say that the DFE has got off very lightly here and, given their past record, perhaps more stringent sanctions should have been imposed. Two years ago, the ICO criticised the DfE for secretly sharing children’s personal data with the Home Office, triggering fears it could be used for immigration enforcement as part of the government’s hostile environment policy. 

Many will question why the public sector merits this special treatment. It is not as if it has been the subject of a disproportionate number of fines. The first fine to a public authority was only issued in December 2021 (more than three and a half years after GDPR came into force) when the Cabinet Office was fined £500,000 for disclosing postal addresses of the 2020 New Year Honours recipients online. This was recently reduced to £50,000 following a negotiated settlement of a pending appeal.

Compare the DfE reprimand with last month’s Monetary Penalty Notice in the sum of £1,350,000 issued to a private company, Easylife Ltd. The catalogue retailer was found to have been using 145,400 customers personal data to predict their medical condition and then, without their consent, targeting them with health-related products. With austerity coming back with a vengeance, no doubt the private sector will question the favourable terms for the public sector. 

Perhaps the Government will come to the private sector’s rescue. Following the new DCMS Secretary for State’s speech  last month, announcing a plan to replace the UK GDPR with a new “British data protection system” which cuts the “burdens” for British businesses, DCMS officials have said further delays to the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill are on the way. A new public consultation will be launched soon.

So far the EU is not impressed. A key European Union lawmaker has described meetings with the U.K. government over the country’s data protection reform plans as “appalling.” Italian MEP Fulvio Martusciello from the center-right European People’s Party said his impression from the visit was that Britain is “giving in on privacy in exchange for business gain.”

This and other GDPR developments will be discussed in detail on our forthcoming GDPR Update workshop. Are you an experienced GDPR Practitioner wanting to take your skills to the next level? Our Advanced Certificate in GDPR Practice starts on 21st November. 

£4.4 Million GDPR Fine for Construction Company 

This month the UK Information Commissioner’s Office has issued two fines and one Notice of Intent under GDPR. 

The latest fine is three times more than that imposed on Easylife Ltd on 5th October. Yesterday, Interserve Group Ltd was fined £4.4 million for failing to keep personal information of its staff secure.  

The ICO found that the Berkshire based construction company failed to put appropriate security measures in place to prevent a cyber-attack, which enabled hackers to access the personal data of up to 113,000 employees through a phishing email. The compromised data included personal information such as contact details, national insurance numbers, and bank account details, as well as special category data including ethnic origin, religion, details of any disabilities, sexual orientation, and health information. 

The Phishing Email 

In March 2020, an Interserve employee forwarded a phishing email, which was not quarantined or blocked by Interserve’s IT system, to another employee who opened it and downloaded its content. This resulted in the installation of malware onto the employee’s workstation. 

The company’s anti-virus quarantined the malware and sent an alert, but Interserve failed to thoroughly investigate the suspicious activity. If they had done so, Interserve would have found that the attacker still had access to the company’s systems. 

The attacker subsequently compromised 283 systems and 16 accounts, as well as uninstalling the company’s anti-virus solution. Personal data of up to 113,000 current and former employees was encrypted and rendered unavailable. 

The ICO investigation found that Interserve failed to follow-up on the original alert of a suspicious activity, used outdated software systems and protocols, and had a lack of adequate staff training and insufficient risk assessments, which ultimately left them vulnerable to a cyber-attack. Consequently, Interserve had breached Article 5 and Article 32 of GDPR by failing to put appropriate technical and organisational measures in place to prevent the unauthorised access of people’s information. 

Notice of Intent 

Interestingly in this case the Notice of Intent (the pre cursor to the fine) was for also for £4.4million i.e. no reductions were made by the ICO despite Interserve’s representations. Compare this to the ICO’s treatment of two much bigger companies who also suffered cyber security breaches. In July 2018, British Airways was issued with a Notice of Intent in the sum of £183 Million but the actual fine was reduced to £20 million in July 2020. In November 2020 Marriott International Inc was fined £18.4 million, much lower than the £99 million set out in the original notice. 

The Information Commissioner, John Edwards, has warned that companies are leaving themselves open to cyber-attack by ignoring crucial measures like updating software and training staff: 

“The biggest cyber risk businesses face is not from hackers outside of their company, but from complacency within their company. If your business doesn’t regularly monitor for suspicious activity in its systems and fails to act on warnings, or doesn’t update software and fails to provide training to staff, you can expect a similar fine from my office. 

Leaving the door open to cyber attackers is never acceptable, especially when dealing with people’s most sensitive information. This data breach had the potential to cause real harm to Interserve’s staff, as it left them vulnerable to the possibility of identity theft and financial fraud.” 

We have been here before. On 10th March the ICO  fined Tuckers Solicitors LLP £98,000 following a ransomware attack on the firm’s IT systems in August 2020. The attacker had encrypted 972,191 files, of which 24,712 related to court bundles.  60 of those were exfiltrated by the attacker and released on the dark web.   

Action Points  

Organisations need to strengthen their defences and have plans in place; not just to prevent a cyber-attack but what to do when it does takes place. Here are our top tips: 

  1. Conduct a cyber security risk assessment and consider an external accreditation through  Cyber Essentials. 
  1. Ensure your employees know the risks of malware/ransomware and follows good security practice. At the time of the cyber-attack, one of the two Interserve employees who received the phishing email had not undertaken data protection training. (Our GDPR Essentials  e-learning solution is a very cost effective e learning solution which contains a specific module on keeping data safe.)  
  1. Have plans in place for a cyber security breach. See our Managing Personal Data Breaches workshop.  
  1. Earlier in the year, the ICO worked with NCSC to remind organisations not to pay a ransom in case of a cyber-attack, as it does not reduce the risk to individuals and is not considered as a reasonable step to safeguard data. For more information, take a look at the ICO ransomware guidance or visit the NCSC website to learn about mitigating a ransomware threat via their business toolkit

This and other GDPR developments will be discussed in detail on our forthcoming GDPR Update workshop.  

Are you an experienced GDPR Practitioner wanting to take your skills to the next level? Our Advanced Certificate in GDPR Practice starts on 21st November.  

ICO Takes Action Against GDPR Subject Access Delays

On 28th September 2022, the Information Commissioner’s Office announced it is taking action against seven organisations for delays in dealing with Subject Access Requests(SARs). This includes government departments, local authorities and a communications company. 

The seven organisations were identified following a series of complaints in relation to multiple failures to respond to requests for copies of personal information collected and processed by these organisations, either within statutory timeframes or at all. 

An SAR must be responded to within one month, although this period can be extended by a further two months in the case of a manifestly unfounded or excessive request. The time starts from the date of receipt as per a ECJ court ruling and confirmed by the provisions of the forthcoming Data Protection and Digital Information Bill.

But an ICO investigation found the seven organisations, from across the public and private sector, repeatedly failed to meet this legal deadline. This resulted in reprimands under the UK GDPR and, in some cases, Practice Recommendations under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

Information Commissioner John Edwards told the BBC naming and shaming organisations that fail to comply is a new proactive way for the ICO to work. 

“It’s going to become more common – it’s really important that people can have confidence in the administration of their information rights,” he said.

“That’s why we are publicly notifying these organisations that they have to bring themselves into compliance. 

“Being able to ask an organisation ‘what information do you hold on me’ and ‘how it is being used’ provides transparency and accountability.

“These are fundamental rights – these are not optional.” 

The seven organisations are:

Ministry of Defence (MoD)

The MoD has been issued with a reprimand following an identified SAR backlog dating back to March 2020. Despite setting up a recovery plan, this backlog has continued to grow, and currently stands at 9,000 SAR requests yet to be responded to. This has meant that, on average, people were typically waiting over 12 months for their information.

Home Office

reprimand has been issued to the Home Office following investigations that showed between March 2021 and November 2021, they had a significant back log of SARs, amounting to just under 21,000 not being responded to during the statutory timeframe. Complaints to the ICO showed requesters suffered significant distress as a result. As of July 2022, there are just over 3,000 unanswered SARs outside of the legal time limit.

London Borough of Croydon

The investigation revealed that from April 2020 to April 2021, the London Borough of Croydon Council had responded to less than half of their SARs within the statutory timescales. This meant that 115 residents did not receive a response in accordance with the UKGDPR. Additionally, since June 2021, the ICO has issued 27 decisions notices under FOIA related to the Council’s failure to respond to information requests. They have been issued with a reprimand as well as a recommendation under our renewed approach to FOI regulation for failure to meet statutory response deadlines.

Kent Police

From October 2020 to February 2021, Kent Police received over 200 SARs, 60% were completed during the statutory deadline. However, some of the remaining SARs are reported to have taken over 18 months to issue a response. As of May 2022, over 200 SARs remain overdue. A reprimand has been issued.

London Borough of Hackney

For the period of April 2020 to February 2021, London Borough of Hackney did not respond to over 60% of the SARs submitted to them in the statutory timeframe. The oldest SAR was over 23 months. They have since been issued with a reprimand as well as a FOI practice recommendation.

London Borough of Lambeth

London Borough of Lambeth has only responded to 74% of the SARs it has received within the statutory timescales from 1 August 2020 to 11 August 2021. This equates to 268 SARs. The council continues to have a backlog of SAR cases and, based on the updated figures, does not appear to be improving. They have been issued with a reprimand.

Virgin Media

Over a 6 month period in 2021, Virgin Media received over 9500 SARs. 14% of these were not responded to during the statutory timeframe. However, their compliance in 2022 has seen improvements. A reprimand has been issued.

These organisations have between three and six months to make improvements or further enforcement action could be taken by the ICO. This action is a reminder that all Data Controllers must have policies and procedures in place to deal with SARs in a timely manner. 

Our workshop, How to Handle a Subject Access Request, equips delegates with the skills and knowledge to handle complex SARs. For experienced GDPR Practitioners wanting to take your skills to the next level we have  our Advanced Certificate in GDPR Practice which starts on 25th October. 

£1.35 Million GDPR Fine for Catalogue Retailer

On 5th October, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) issued a GDPR Monetary Penalty Notice in the sum of £1,350,000 to Easylife Ltd. The catalogue retailer was found to have been using 145,400 customers personal data to predict their medical condition and then, without their consent, targeting them with health-related products.

This latest ICO fine is interesting but not because of the amount involved. There have been much higher fines. In October 2020, British Airways was fined £20 million for a cyber security breach which saw the personal and financial details of more than 400,000 customers being accessed by hackers. This, like most of the other ICO fines, involved a breach of the security provisions of GDPR. In the Easylife fine, the ICO focussed on the more interesting GDPR provisions (from a practitioner’s perspective) relating to legal basis, profiling and transparency. 

The background to the fine is that a telemarketing company was being investigated by the ICO for promoting funeral plans during the pandemic. This led to the investigation into Easylife because the company was conducting marketing calls for Easylife. The investigation initially concerned potential contraventions of the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR), and that investigation raised concerns of potential contraventions of GDPR, which the Commissioner then investigated separately.

The ICO investigation found that when a customer purchased a product from Easylife’s Health Club catalogue, the company would make assumptions about their medical condition and then market health-related products to them without their consent. For example, if a person bought a jar opener or a dinner tray, Easylife would use that purchase data to assume that person has arthritis and then call them to market glucosamine joint patches.

Special Category Data and Profiling

Article 4( 4) of the GDPR defines profiling:
“‘profiling’ means any form of automated processing of personal data consisting of the use of personal data to evaluate certain personal aspects relating to a natural person, in particular to analyse or predict aspects concerning that natural person’s performance at work, economic situation, health, personal preferences, interests, reliability, behaviour, location or movements;”

Out of 122 products in Easylife’s Health Club catalogue, 80 were considered to be ‘trigger products’. Once these products were purchased by customers, Easlylife would target them with a health-related item. The ICO found that significant profiling of customers was taking place. 

Easylife’s use of customer transactional data to infer that the customer probably had a particular health condition was Special Category Data. Article 6 and 9 of the GDPR provides that such data may not be processed unless a lawfulness condition can be found. The only relevant condition in the context of Easylife’s health campaign was explicit consent. Easylife did not collect consent to process Special Category Data, instead relying on legitimate interest (based on its privacy notice) under Article 6. As a result, it had no lawful basis to process the data in contravention of Article 6 and Article 9 of the GDPR. 

Invisible Processing

Furthermore the ICO concluded that ‘invisible’ processing of health data took place. It was ‘invisible’ because Easylife’s customers were unaware that the company was collecting and using their personal data for profiling/marketing purposes. In order to process this data lawfully, Easylife would have had to collect explicit consent from the customers and to update its privacy policy to indicate that Special Category Data was to be processed by consent. Easylife’s omission to do this was a breach of Article 13(1)(c) of the GDPR.

John Edwards, UK Information Commissioner, said:

“Easylife was making assumptions about people’s medical condition based on their purchase history without their knowledge, and then peddled them a health product – that is not allowed.

The invisible use of people’s data meant that people could not understand how their data was being used and, ultimately, were not able to exercise their privacy and data protection rights. The lack of transparency, combined with the intrusive nature of the profiling, has resulted in a serious breach of people’s information rights.”

One other ICO monetary penalty notice has examined these issues in detail. In May 2022 Clearview AI was fined £7,552,800 following an investigation into its online database contains 20 billion images of people’s faces scraped from the internet. 

As Jon Baines pointed out (thanks Jon!), on the Jiscmail bulletin board, a large chunk of the online programmatic advertising market also profiles people and infers Special Category Data in the same way as Easylife. This was highlighted in the ICO’s 2019 report. The ICO said in January last year that it was resuming its Adtech investigation, but there has been very little news since then.

GDPR was not the only cause of Easylife’s woes. It was also fined £130,000 under PECR for making 1,345,732 direct marketing calls to people registered with the Telephone Preference Service (TPS).

This case also shows the importance of organisations only using  telephone marketing companies who understand and comply with GDPR and PECR. If not, the ICO enforcement spotlight will also fall on clients of such companies.

This and other GDPR developments will be discussed in detail on our forthcoming GDPR Update workshop. 

Are you an experienced GDPR Practitioner wanting to take your skills to the next level? Our Advanced Certificate in GDPR Practice starts on 25th October. 

TikTok Faces a £27 Million GDPR Fine

On 26 September 2022, TikTok was issued with a Notice of Intent under the GDPR by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). The video-sharing platform faces a £27 million fine after an ICO investigation found that the company may have breached UK data protection law.  

The notice sets out the ICO’s provisional view that TikTok breached UK data protection law between May 2018 and July 2020. It found the company may have:

  • processed the data of children under the age of 13 without appropriate parental consent,
  • failed to provide proper information to its users in a concise, transparent and easily understood way, and
  • processed special category data, without legal grounds to do so.

The Information Commissioner, John Edwards said:

“We all want children to be able to learn and experience the digital world, but with proper data privacy protections. Companies providing digital services have a legal duty to put those protections in place, but our provisional view is that TikTok fell short of meeting that requirement.

“I’ve been clear that our work to better protect children online involves working with organisations but will also involve enforcement action where necessary. In addition to this, we are currently looking into how over 50 different online services are conforming with the Children’s code and have six ongoing investigations looking into companies providing digital services who haven’t, in our initial view, taken their responsibilities around child safety seriously enough.”

Rolled out in September last year, the Children’s Code puts in place new data protection standards for online services likely to be accessed by children.

It will be interesting to see if and when this notice becomes an actual fine. If it does it will be the largest fine issued by the ICO. It is also the first potential fine to look at transparency and consent and will provide valuable guidance to Data Controllers especially if it is appealed to the Tribunal.  

It is important to note that this is not a fine but ‘notice of intent’ – a legal document that precedes a potential fine. The notice sets out the ICO’s provisional view which may of course change after TikTok makes representations. 

Remember we have been here before. In July 2018 British Airways was issued with a Notice of Intent in the sum of £183 Million but the actual fine was for £20 million issued in July 2020. In November 2020Marriott International Inc was fined £18.4 million, much lower than the £99 million set out in the original notice.

This is not the first time TikTok has found itself in hot water of over its data handling practices. In 2019, the company was given a record $5.7m fine by the Federal Trade Commission, for mishandling children’s data. It has also been fined in South Korea for similar reasons.

Are you an experienced GDPR Practitioner wanting to take your skills to the next level? Our Advanced Certificate in GDPR Practice starts on 25th October. 

A New GDPR Fine and a New ICO Enforcement Approach

Since May 25th 2018, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has issued ten GDPR fines. The latest was issued on 30th June 2022 to Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust for £78,400. The Trust had accidentally revealing 1,781 adult gender identity patients’ email addresses when sending out an email.

This is the second ICO fine issued to a Data Controller in these circumstances. In 2021, HIV Scotland was fined £10,000 when it sent an email to 105 people which included patient advocates representing people living with HIV. All the email addresses were visible to all recipients, and 65 of the addresses identified people by name. From the personal data disclosed, an assumption could be made about individuals’ HIV status or risk. 

The latest fine was issued to Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust following an e mail sent in early September 2019. The Trust intended to run a competition inviting patients of the adult Gender Identity Clinic to provide artwork to decorate a refurbished clinic building. It sent two identical emails promoting the competition (one to 912 recipients, and the second to 869 recipients) before realising they had not Bcc’d the addresses.

It was clear from the content of the email that all the recipients were patients of the clinic, and there was a risk further personal details could be found by researching the email addresses. The Trust immediately realised the error and tried, unsuccessfully, to recall the emails. It wrote to all the recipients to apologise and informed the ICO later that day.

The ICO investigation found:

  • Two similar, smaller incidents had affected a different department of the same Trust in 2017. While that department had strengthened their processes as a result, the learning and changes were not implemented across the whole Trust.
  • The Trust was overly reliant on people following policy to prevent bulk emails using ‘to’ in Outlook. There were no technical or organisational safeguards in place to prevent or mitigate against this very predictable human error. The Trust has since procured specialist bulk email software and set “a maximum ‘To’ recipient” rule on the email server.

The ICO reduced the fine issued to the Trust from £784,800 to £78,400 to reflect the ICO’s new approach to working more effectively with public authorities. This approach, which will be trialled over the next two years, was outlined in an open letter from the UK Information Commissioner John Edwards to public authorities. It will see more use of the Commissioner’s discretion to reduce the impact of fines on the public sector, coupled with better engagement including publicising lessons learned and sharing good practice. 

In practice, the new approach will mean an increased use of the ICO’s wider powers, including warnings, reprimands and enforcement notices, with fines only issued in the most serious cases. When a fine is considered, the decision notice will give an indication on the amount of the fine the case would have attracted. This will provide information to the wider economy about the levels of penalty others can expect from similar conduct. Additionally, the ICO will be working more closely with the public sector to encourage compliance with data protection law and prevent harms before they happen.

The ICO followed its new approach recently when issuing a reprimand to NHS Blood and Transplant Service. in August 2019, the service inadvertently released untested development code into a live system for matching transplant list patients with donated organs. This error led to five adult patients on the non-urgent transplant list not being offered transplant livers at the earliest possible opportunity. The service remedied the error within a week, and none of the patients involved experienced any harm as a result. The ICO says that, if the revised enforcement approach had not been in place, the service would have received a fine of £749,856. 

The new approach will be welcome news to the public sector at a time of pressure on budgets. However some have questioned why the public sector merits this special treatment. It is not as if it has been the subject of a disproportionate number of fines. The first fine to a public authority was only issued in December 2021 (more than three and a half years after GDPR came into force) when the Cabinet Office was fined £500,000 for disclosing postal addresses of the 2020 New Year Honours recipients online. Perhaps the ICO is already thinking about the reform of its role following the DCMS’s response to last year’s GDPR consultation. It will be interesting to see if others, particularly the charity sector, lobby for similar treatment. 

This and other GDPR developments will be discussed in detail on our forthcoming GDPR Update workshop. We have a few places left on our Advanced Certificate in GDPR Practice course starting in September.

ICO Fines “World’s Largest Facial Network”

The Information Commissioner’s Office has issued a Monetary Penalty Notice of £7,552,800 to Clearview AI Inc for breaches of the UK GDPR. 

Clearview is a US based company which describes itself as the “World’s Largest Facial Network”. It allows customers, including the police, to upload an image of a person to its app, which is then checked against all the images in the Clearview database. The app then provides a list of matching images with a link to the websites from where they came from. 

Clearview’s online database contains 20 billion images of people’s faces and data scraped from publicly available information on the internet and social media platforms all over the world. This service was used on a free trial basis by a number of UK law enforcement agencies. The trial was discontinued and the service is no longer being offered in the UK. However Clearview has customers in other countries, so the ICO ruled that is still processing the personal data of UK residents.

The ICO was of the view that, given the high number of UK internet and social media users, Clearview’s database is likely to include a substantial amount of data from UK residents, which has been gathered without their knowledge. It found the company had breached the UK GDPR by:

  • failing to use the information of people in the UK in a way that is fair and transparent, given that individuals are not made aware or would not reasonably expect their personal data to be used in this way;
  • failing to have a lawful reason for collecting people’s information;
  • failing to have a process in place to stop the data being retained indefinitely;
  • failing to meet the higher data protection standards required for biometric data (Special Category Data):
  • asking for additional personal information, including photos, when asked by members of the public if they are on their database. This may have acted as a disincentive to individuals who wish to object to their data being collected and used.

The ICO has also issued an enforcement notice ordering Clearview to stop obtaining and using the personal data of UK residents that is publicly available on the internet, and to delete the data of UK residents from its systems.

The precise legal basis for the ICO’s fine will only be known when (hopefully not if) it decides to publish the Monetary Penalty Notice. The information we have so far suggests that it considered breaches of Article 5 (1st and 5th Principles – lawfulness, transparency and data retention) Article 9 (Special Category Data) and Article 14 (privacy notice) amongst others.  (UPDATE – the notice has now been published here)

Whilst substantially lower than the £17 million Notice of Intent, issued in November 2021, this fine shows that the new Information Commissioner, John Edwards, is willing to take on at least some of the big tech companies. 

The ICO enforcement action comes after a joint investigation with the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC). The latter also ordered the company to stop processing citizens’ data and delete any information it held. France, Itlay and Canada have also sanctioned the company under the EU GDPR. 

So what next for Clearview? The ICO has very limited means to enforce a fine against foreign entities.  Clearview has no operations or offices in the UK so it could just refuse to pay. This may be problematic from a public relations perspective as many of Clearview’s customers are law enforcement agencies in Europe who may not be willing to associate themselves with a company that has been found to have breached EU privacy laws. 

When the Italian DP regulator fined Clearview €20m (£16.9m) earlier this year, it responded by saying it did not operate in any way that brought it under the jurisdiction of the EU GDPR. Could it argue the same in the UK, where it also has no operations, customers or headquarters? Students of our  UK GDPR Practitioner certificate course will know that the answer lies in Article 3(2) which is sets out the extra territorial effect of the UK GDPR:

This Regulation applies to the relevant processing of personal data of data subjects who are in the United Kingdom by a controller or processor not established in the United Kingdom where the processing activities are related to:

  1. the offering of goods or services, irrespective of whether a payment of the data subject is required, to such data subjects in the United Kingdom; or
  2. the monitoring of their behaviour as far as their behaviour takes place within the United Kingdom. [our emphasis]

Whilst clearly Clearview (no pun intended) is not established in the UK, the ICO is of the view it is covered by the UK GDPR due to Article 3(2). See the statement of the Commissioner, John Edwards:

“Clearview AI Inc has collected multiple images of people all over the world, including in the UK, from a variety of websites and social media platforms, creating a database with more than 20 billion images. The company not only enables identification of those people, but effectively monitors their behaviour and offers it as a commercial service. That is unacceptable. That is why we have acted to protect people in the UK by both fining the company and issuing an enforcement notice.”

If Clearview does appeal, we will hopefully receive judicial guidance about the territorial scope of the  UK GDPR.   

UPDATE 19/10/22): Clearview’s appeal against the ICO’s £7.5 million fine is scheduled for 21-23 November in the First Tier Tribunal(Information Rights).

This and other GDPR developments will be discussed in detail on our forthcoming GDPR Update workshop. We also have a few places left on our Advanced Certificate in GDPR Practice course starting in September.

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