Head in the Sandbox

The Information Commissioner’s Office recently held a workshop about their proposed Regulatory Sandbox. The idea of the sandbox is that organisations can come to the ICO with new proposals in order to test out their lawfulness in a safe environment. The hoped-for outcome is that products and services that are at the same time innovative and compliant will emerge.

There is no mention of a sandbox process in the GDPR or the DPA 2018. There is a formal mechanism for controllers to consult the ICO about new ideas that carry high risk (prior consultation) but the circumstances where that happens are prescribed. It’s more about managing risk than getting headlines. Unlike Data Protection Impact Assessments, prior consultation or certification, the design and operation of the sandbox is entirely within the ICO’s control. It is important to know who is having an influence its development, especially as the sandbox approach is not without risk.

Although Mrs Denham is not above eye-catching enforcement when it suits her, the ICO is often risk averse, and has shown little appetite for challenging business models. For example, the UK’s vibrant data broking market – which is fundamentally opaque and therefore unlawful – has rarely been challenged by Wilmslow, especially not the bigger players. They often get treated as stakeholders. The sandbox could make this worse – big organisations will come with their money-making wheezes, and it’s hard to imagine that ICO staff will want to tell them that they can’t do what they want. The sandbox could leave the ICO implicated, having approved or not prevented dodgy practices to avoid the awkwardness of saying no.

Even if you disagree with me about these risks, it’s surely a good thing that the ICO is transparent about who is having an influence on the process. So I made an FOI request to the ICO, requesting the names and companies or organisations of those who attended the meeting. As is tradition, they replied on the 20th working day to refuse to tell me. According to Wilmslow, disclosure of the attendees’ identities is exempt for four different reasons. Transparency will prejudice the ICO’s ability to carry out its regulatory functions, disclosure of the names of the attendees is a breach of data protection, revealing the names of the organisations will cause them commercial damage, and finally, the information was supplied with an expectation of confidentiality, and so disclosure will breach that duty.

These claims are outrageous. DPIAs and prior disclosure exist, underpinned both by the law and by European Data Protection Board guidance. Despite the obvious benefits of developing a formal GDPR certification process (both allowing controllers to have their processing assessed, and the creation of a new industry at a time when the UK needs all the economic activity it can get), the ICO’s position on certification is supremely arrogant: “The ICO has no plans to accredit certification bodies or carry out certification at this time“. A process set out in detail in the GDPR is shunned, with the ICO choosing instead to spend huge amounts of time and money on a pet project which has no legal basis. Certification could spread expertise across the UK; the sandbox will inevitably be limited to preferred stakeholders. If they’re hiding the identities of those who show up to the workshop, it’s hard to imagine that the actual process will be any more transparent.

The ICO’s arguments about commercial prejudice under S43 of FOI are amateurish: “To disclose that a company has sent delegates to the event may in itself indicate to the wider sector and therefore potential competitors that they are in development of, or in the planning stages of a new innovative product which involves personal data“. A vital principle of FOI is that when using a prejudice-based exemption, you need to show cause and effect. Disclosure will or will be likely to lead to the harm described. How on earth could a company lose money, or become less competitive, purely because it was revealed that they attended an ICO event (which is what using S43 means)?

The ICO’s personal data and confidentiality arguments are equally weak – everyone who attended the meeting would know the identities of everyone else, and all were acting in an official or commercial capacity. This was not a secret or private meeting about a specific project; anyone with an interest was able to apply to attend. Revealing their attendance is not unfair, and there is plainly a legitimate interest in knowing who the ICO is talking to about a project into which the office is putting significant resources, and which will have an impact on products or services that may affect millions of people. The determination to hide this basic information and avoid scrutiny of the sandbox process undermines the credibility of the project itself, and makes the ICO’s claim to be an effective defender of public sector transparency ever more hypocritical.

Worst of all, if disclosure of the attendees’ identity was the calamity for commercial sensitivity and personal data that the ICO claims it to be, there should be an immediate and thorough investigation of how the information I requested came to be revealed on the ICO’s website and twitter account. The entire event was recorded and a promotional video was released. Several attendees (whose names and companies I cannot be given because of confidentiality, data protection and commercial prejudice) are identified and interviewed on camera, while there are numerous shots of other attendees who are clearly identifiable. Either the ICO has betrayed the confidentiality and personal data rights of these people, putting their companies at direct commercial risk, or their FOI response is a cack-handed attempt to avoid legitimate scrutiny. Either way, I strongly recommend that the left hand and the right hand in Wilmslow make some rudimentary attempts to get to know one another.

Long ago, I was one of a number of online commentators described by the ICO’s comms people as a ‘driver of negative sentiment’. More recently, one of Denham’s more dedicated apologists accused me of being one of the regulator’s “adversaries”. I’m not a fan of the ICO, and I never have been. But this stinks. The determination to throw every conceivable exemption at a simple request to know who the ICO is talking to suggests that the office is afraid of scrutiny, afraid of having to justify what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. The incompetence of refusing to give me information that is on display on their website and Twitter account shows contempt for their obligations as an FOI regulator. The ICO has its head in the sand; as we drift out of the European mainstream into a lonely future on the fringes, their secrecy and incompetence should be matters of concern for anyone who cares about Data Protection.

Comments

  1. My recent experience of making FOI requests to the ICO has been one of spurious, knee-jerk refusals. I’ve now made an FOI request for the own compliance statistics. After an initial disclosure (which was anodyne) I asked whether they were going to publish them regularly as an updated dataset. The answer was yes, but not yet and we don’t know when. That they fail to be transparent with this most obvious and straightforward performance measure, 14 years after the Act was passed, is risible. And it puts them in non-compliance with the best-practice recommendation in the new Section 45 Code: “Public authorities with over 100 Full Time Equivalent (FTE) employees should, as a matter of best practice, publish details of their performance on handling requests for information under the Act”.

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