SARmaggedon Days Are Here Again (Again)

Reading my emails, a headline leapt out at me: “The hidden cost of GDPR data access requests“. It led me to BetaNews, a website that looks like it is trapped in 1998, and a story describing research into SARs commissioned by Guardum, a purveyor of subject access request handling software. A sample of 100 Data Protection Officers were consulted, and you’ll never guess what the research uncovered.

SARs, it turns out, are time consuming and expensive. I award 10 GDPR points to the Guardum CTO for knowing that SARs weren’t introduced in 2018, but I have to take them away immediately because he goes on to claim that “There has also been a marked change in the way that lawyers are using DSARs as part of the data discovery process.” Apparently, lawyers are using SARs now. Imagine that. The article goes to say that “Fulfilling DSARs can involve finding, compiling and redacting data in digital and paper format across multiple departments both on company networks and in the cloud.“. There’s also a bit of a spoiler about whether the Pope is a Catholic.

According to Guardum, the average cost of a SAR is £4,884.53, the average DPO receives 27 SARs a month, and each one takes an average of 66 working hours to deal with. The article didn’t explain how these figures were arrived at, so I eagerly clicked the link to visit Guardum’s website for the full results. What I found was a fountain of guff. Strip out the endless bar and pie charts, and what Guardum wants to say is that 45% of the DPOs surveyed would like to automate some of the process because of a predicted landslide of SARs, provoked by angry furloughed and sacked staff.

I’m not sure about the logic of this – I can understand that everyone who loses their job will be upset and probably angry, and I’ve certainly dealt with lots of SARs related to a suspension or dismissal. But in those cases, the action taken was personal and direct – an individual was singled out by the employer for the treatment in question. I don’t see why people losing jobs in a pandemic will be so determined to send a SAR. It’s not like the reason for their predicament is a mystery.

The survey questions are opportunistic at best, and at worst, seem designed to allow Guardum to paint this picture of anxious DPOs uncertain about how they’re going to handle the post Covid-19 SARmageddon that the company is evidently desperate for. 75% of respondents are described as having difficulties dealing with SARs during the lockdown, though this actually translates as good news. 72% are coping but expect a SAR backlog when they get back to the office, while just 3% fearing a ‘mountain’ of requests. The headline on one slide is that 30% anticipate a ‘massive’ increase in SARs, but the reality is 55% expect the same as before and 15% think they’ll get less. 73% supposedly think that furloughed or laid off staff will be a ‘big factor’ in the predicted increase, even though the breakdown shows that only 20% think it will be the single biggest factor. To emphasise, these are requests that haven’t happened yet. The people who say that they will are the ones flogging the software to deal with the problem.

So far, so what? Guardum have software to sell and a cynical pitch about Covid-19 to achieve that. Does it matter? In the grand scheme of things, no, it doesn’t. I’m probably not the only person currently experiencing a crash course in What’s Really Important. But in the micro scheme of things, bullshit deserves to be called out, especially when it’s designed to exploit a crisis that’s causing misery and death across the world. Many of the revelations in this survey are staggeringly banal – nearly 50% of people find tracking the data down across multiple departments to be a slog, while 63% have to search both paper and electronic records. Who with any experience in Data Protection would think it was worth pointing this out? Meanwhile, the assertions about how long a SAR takes or how much it costs are wholly unexplained. It’s meaningless to claim that the mean cost of a SAR is £4,884.53 if you don’t explain how that was calculated (inevitably, the CTO is touting this figure on LinkedIn).

Guardum aren’t necessarily the experts at Data Protection that they might have us believe. For one thing, despite being a UK company, both the survey results and their website exclusively refer to ‘PII’ rather than personal data. For another, part of the criteria for participating in the survey was that the DPO needed to work for a company with more than 250 employees. This was, for a time, the threshold for a mandatory DPO but despite being changed, some dodgy training companies and consultants didn’t notice and ran courses which highlighted the 250 figure even when it was gone. Most importantly, nearly half of the people who responded to the survey don’t know what they’re doing. The survey was purportedly targeted at DPOs, but 44% of respondents are identified as being in ‘C-level’ jobs – perhaps this is to give a veneer of seniority, but C-level jobs are precisely the senior roles that are likely attract a conflict of interests. Guardum talked to people in the wrong jobs, and apparently didn’t realise this.

The ‘About’ page of Guardum’s website proclaims “Guardum supports privacy by design – where data privacy is engineered into your business processes during design rather than as an afterthought“, but the execution is less confident. There is a questionnaire that shows how much an organisation can save by using the Guardum product, but when you complete it, you have to fill in your name, company and email to get the results, and there’s no privacy policy or transparency information about how this information will be used. Moreover, if you try to use the contact form, clicking on the link to the terms and conditions results in ‘page not found’.

I have to declare my bias here – I don’t believe that any ‘solution’ can fully deal with the SAR response process, and I think people who tout AI gizmos that automatically redact “PII” are probably selling snake oil. Some of the SAR grind comes in finding the data, but a lot of it is about judgement – what should you redact? How much should you redact? Anyone who claims that they can replace humans when dealing with an HR, mental health or social care is writing cheques that no product I have ever seen can cash. So when I land on a website like Guardum’s, my back is up and my scepticism is turned all the way up. It would be nice if once, I saw a product that wasn’t sold with bullshit. But not only is Guardum’s pitch heavy with management buzzwords, they’re using fear as a marketing tool. Just last week, they ran a webinar about weathering the ‘Post Pandemic DSAR Storm‘.

Guardum claim that they provide “the only solution that can fully meet the DSAR challenge of responding in the tight 30-day deadline, giving you back control, time and money that are lost using other solutions“. Nowhere do they mention that you can extend the deadline by up to two months is a request is complex (and many are). But even if their claims are true, why do they need to sell their product via catastrophising? If their expertise goes back to the 1984 Act, why are they calling it PII and talking up the opinions of DPOs who are in the wrong job? Why oversell the results of their survey? Why hide the basis of the hours and cost calculations on which is all of this is being flogged?  And what on earth is a ‘Certified Blockchain Expert‘?

The future post-Covid is an uncertain place. I find the utopianism of some commentators hard to swallow, partly because people are still dying and partly because the much-predicted end of the office will have career-changing consequences for people like me. But at least the LinkedIn prophets are trying to explore positives for themselves and others in an undeniably grim situation. The people running Guardum seem only to want scare people into getting a demo of their software. If one is looking for positives, the fact that the ICO has waved the white flag means that no organisation needs to be unduly concerned about DP fines at the moment, and despite some of the concerns expressed in Guardum’s survey, nobody in the UK has ever been fined for not answering a SAR on time. The old advice about deleting data you don’t need and telling your managers not to slag people off in emails and texts will save you as much SAR misery as any software package, and I can give you that for free.

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