Yesterday, after at least a year of pondering it, the Information Commissioner asked the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) to sign an undertaking, agreeing to change the way in which they obtain consent to use students’ data. The data is obtained as part of the application process and subsequently used for marketing a variety of products and services, and UCAS has agreed to change its approach. It’s important to note that this is an undertaking, so UCAS has not been ordered to do anything, nor are there any direct consequences if they fail to do what is stated in the undertaking. An undertaking is a voluntary exercise – it is not served, it does not order or require, it simply documents an agreement by a Data Controller to do something.

Aspects of the story concern me. The ICO’s head of enforcement is quoted as saying: “By failing to give these applicants a clear option to avoid marketing, they were being unfairly faced with the default option of having their details used for commercial purposes” but given that the marketing was sent by text and email, the opportunity to “avoid” marketing is not what should have been in place. If UCAS wanted to sell access to university and college applicants, they needed consent – which means opt-in, not opt-out. As the undertaking itself points out, consent is defined in the EU Data Protection Directive as freely given – an opt-out cannot constitute this in my opinion. If you think that an opt-out does constitute consent, try transposing that thinking into any other situation where consent is required, and see how creepy your thinking has suddenly become. Consent should be a free choice, made actively. We should not have to stop commercial companies from texting and emailing us – the onus should be on them to make an attractive offer we want to take up, not on consumers to bat away their unwanted attentions.

It’s entirely possible that the ICO’s position on consent is better expressed in the undertaking itself, but here we have a little problem. At least when it was published yesterday, half of the undertaking was missing. Only the oddly numbered pages were published, so presumably the person who scanned the document had a double-sided original and didn’t notice that they had scanned it single-sided. The published document also included one page of UCAS’ covering letter and the final signed page of the undertaking, which the ICO never normally publishes. This mistake reveals some interesting nuggets that we wouldn’t normally know, from the trivial (the Chief Executive of UCAS signed the undertaking with a fountain pen, something of which I wholeheartedly approve) to the potentially significant (the covering letter sets out when UCAS might divert resources away from complying with the undertaking).

But that’s not the point. The point is that the ICO uploaded the wrong document to the internet, and this is not the first time it has happened. I know this because on a previous occasion, I contacted the ICO to tell them that they had done it, and many people on my training courses have also seen un-redacted enforcement and FOI notices on the ICO website. The data revealed in the UCAS case is not sensitive (although I don’t know how the UCAS Chief would feel about her signature being published on the internet), but that’s not the point either. The ICO has spent the last ten years taking noisy, self-righteous action against a variety of mainly public bodies for security slip-ups, and the past five issuing monetary penalties for the same, including several following the accidental publication of personal data on the internet.

The issue here is simple: does the ICO’s accidental publication of this undertaking constitute a breach of the 7th Data Protection Principle? They know about the risk because they’ve done it before. Have they taken appropriate technical and organisational measures to prevent this from happening? Is there a clear process to ensure that the right documents are published? Are documents checked before they are uploaded? Does someone senior check whether the process is being followed? Is everyone involved in the process properly trained in the handling of personal data, and in the technology required to publish documents onto the web? And even if all of these measures are in place, is action taken when such incidents are identified? If the ICO can give positive answers to all these questions, then it is not a breach. Stuff happens. But if they have not, it is a breach.

There is no possibility, no matter how hilarious it would be, that the ICO will issue a CMP on itself following this incident, although it is technically possible. What should happen is that the ICO should quickly and effectively take steps to prevent this from happening again. However, if the Information Commissioner’s Office does not ask the Information Commissioner Christopher Graham to sign an undertaking, publicly stating what these measures will be, they cannot possibly speak and act with authority the next time they ask someone else to the same. Whether they redact Mr Graham’s signature is entirely a matter for them.

UPDATE: without acknowledging their mistake, the Information Commissioner’s Office has now changed the undertaking to be the version they clearly intended to publish. One wonders if anything has been done internally, or if they are simply hoping that only smartarses like me noticed in the first place.

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