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:
- 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.
- Ensure sufficient data protection training is provided to all staff.
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.