Taking the piss

On page 74 of the Information Commissioner’s newly published Annual Report, you can find the welcome news that the ICO reduced the amount of water in flushing toilets and the timings of auto flushing in urinals. Sadly, the expansion of the organisation’s footprint in Wilmslow, due to swelling numbers of staff, has led to an increase in overall emissions (insert your own joke). There is an abundance of other information about other environmental issues, including paper consumption and car journeys,

Strangely, if you look for information about one of the landmark events of UK Data Protection in 2019 – 2020, there is no sign. In December 2019, the Information Commissioner issued its first ever penalty under the General Data Protection Regulation against a company called Doorstep Dispensaree. Several pages of the report are taken up illustrating “The Year in Summary”, and the only thing mentioned for December is the launch of a consultation about AI. It’s not that the ICO had so many things to report on; one of the highlights for June 2019 was “The Information Commissioner makes a speech at a G20 side event in Tokyo“. Odd that an event which is very much the ‘only invited to the evening do’ of international speaking gigs makes the cut, but the first and so far only UK GDPR fine does not.

There are several reasons for this, I believe, all of which go to the heart of what is wrong with Elizabeth Denham’s disastrous term as Commissioner. The first is Denham’s vanity, mistaking public appearances and headlines for actual achievements. Allied to her Kim Jong Un tendencies is the prioritisation of international work and pet projects over the basics of regulation. Finally, there is a fundamental dishonesty at play – it should be deeply embarrassing for Denham that she hasn’t made a serious attempt to enforce the GDPR in two years. Because it is evidence of this failure, Doorstep Dispensaree (a solid and encouragingly detailed enforcement case that should have been the ICO’s bread and butter during this period) is written out of the story. It didn’t happen.

Most of the report is a soup of meaningless buzzphrases, presumably designed to disguise the hollow nature of what is being described. There have been “deep dive sessions” with the “most significant Digital Economy Stakeholders“, an “Innovation Listening Tour” and an “Innovation Hub”, which the ICO hopes to open up to “innovative organisations” like “catapults” and “incubators“. I think all of this that they’ve had lots of meetings; the outcomes are impossible to identify beyond wonderful “engagement“, a word which appears 22 times (‘penalty‘ appears 4 times).

It is possible to identify a couple of interesting themes. One is the ICO’s determination to support capitalism and The Man. One of the main strategic goals is “enabling innovation and economic growth“, while another is increasing trust and confidence in the way personal data is used. These are not regulatory outcomes, they are economic goals. Actual enforcement of the law is demoted to the fifth out of six goals. The ICO has established a team of people to work on the economic growth agenda, led by a Head of Economic Analysis seconded from an organisation that Wilmslow has decided we don’t need to know the name of.

The other obvious strand is both depressing and familiar, especially to an ICO refugee of such ancient vintage as myself. The joke in the ICO when I was there (2001 – 2002, fact fans) was that it didn’t matter that we never took action because “thinking is doing”, a phrase attributed to Francis Aldhouse, the Deputy Commissioner at the time. Thinking is Doing paralysed the ICO for years, but the spell was broken first by the impossibility of ignoring the cycle of security breaches begun by HMRC’s lost discs, and then by Chris Graham. For all his flaws, Graham revolutionised the ICO by allowing his staff to demolish the shameful FOI backlog and embrace the penalty powers that the lost discs fiasco gifted to Wilmslow.

Thinking is Doing is back. Doorstep Dispensaree (a thing that happened) doesn’t warrant a mention, but the BA and Marriott penalties (things that did not happen) are mentioned approvingly because they “received a large amount of media attention

One of the case studies in the Annual Report covers the ICO’s investigation into Ad Tech. After a flurry of meetings, press releases and agreeable dinners at Cibo, the ICO was supposedly poised to rewrite the internet, but instead, the Executive Director of Shiny Things Simon McDougall promised that whatever they did, ICO would not to spoil the ad industry’s Christmas. Then, when Covid-19 gave him cover, he dropped the whole thing like a stone. McDougall is paid between £115,000 and £120,000 per year, and his contract has been renewed until July 2021, for reasons I cannot begin to understand.

The closer that the report gets to reality rather than Denham’s preoccupations with politics and online harms, the harder it gets to spare her blushes. The report cites 236 instances of “regulatory action“, but it’s really hard to work out what this means. Of that total, just 15 are fines, 7 are enforcement notices, and 8 are assessment notices (i.e. mandatory audits). There are 8 prosecutions and 4 cautions. 54 of the “regulatory actions” are in fact information notices, which do not represent action at all.

An Information Notice is an investigatory tool which might led to action, and might not; in itself, it’s just demanding information. What are the other 139 “regulatory actions“, and why doesn’t the Commissioner what to admit what they are? Has there been a blizzard of warnings and reprimands that are being kept secret? Or, as the inclusion of information notices denotes, is the maths necessary to create the 236 more akin to gymnastics?

The report boasts of ICO intervention in a number of court cases, and happily sets out their successful involvement in the Elgizouli case. It’s a sign of how thin-skinned Denham’s ICO has become that they can’t bring themselves to admit that in the other two cases they cite (the challenges to South Wales Police’s use of facial recognition and the DPA’s immigration exemption), they backed the losing side.

In the end, the figures don’t lie. The toilet flush numbers are encouraging, but other information is less reassuring. The ICO set itself a target of resolving (i.e. closing) 80% of complaints within 12 weeks. Despite receiving less complaints than in the previous year, gaining 100 staff and receiving a massive boost in funding, they managed only 74%. 84 cases are more than a year old. Despite 46% of complaints received being about subject access, the ICO took no enforcement action against subject access infringements in the period.

Perhaps most damning of all, the total number of fines issued in the period (£2,409,000) was less than half what it was in 2018 – 2019 (£5,436,000). There are people who praise the ICO for their guidance and conference appearances, but this is like measuring the police for their road safety demonstrations in schools. The ICO isn’t a “proportionate and practical regulator” – it’s far from where it should be, achieving nothing but emissions of hot air.

Denham’s foreword has an almost valedictory tone. There’s a strong effort to defend the ICO’s determination to spend time on anything as long as it isn’t related to the UK, but the final thought is about how Denham thinks she has achieved her objective of transforming the ICO into “an information rights regulator that is helpful, authoritative, tech-savvy, practical and firm“. While what she’s actually done is hollowed out a passable regulator and turned it into an ineffective, politically biased think-tank, the only positive thing I can take away from this annual report is the hope that if Denham thinks it’s mission accomplished, she will move on to pastures new. Hopefully her successor will have some experience at putting out fires.

Cop out

On May 3rd 2018, Elizabeth Denham appeared on Channel 4 News as part of her long running commitment to generating headlines. Denham’s track record on the programme is not great – it was on the same programme in March that she adopted the interesting tactic (uniquely, as far as I can see) of informing an organisation in public and in advance that she planned to apply for a warrant to raid them, losing what might be a useful element of surprise in order to look tough in front of Jon Snow.

In the more recent interview, the Commissioner claimed that she had the power to fine directors and had done so. I made an FOI request about this, and the ICO admitted that “we do not have the power to directly fine directors“, directly contradicting what Denham said. You can tell me that ICO has the power to go after directors in limited circumstances that can result in a court issuing a fine and that must be what she meant (ICO did) but that’s not good enough. The DP regulator went on the telly and claimed to have a power she doesn’t have – it’s surely part of Denham’s job to increase understanding of Data Protection, not to muddy the waters.

In the same interview, Denham cheerily announced that she saw herself as a Sheriff of the internet. Arguably, she should be a Mountie but let’s leave that to one side. I assumed that the statement was a throwaway, not a serious statement of how Denham sees herself and her office. I was wrong. There’s a pattern. In a fawning profile by the Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr a few weeks ago, the Commissioner delivered a soundbite that I suspect is intended to epitomise the Denham Era: “Data crimes are real crimes“. And in the recently leaked DCMS Committee report into Fake News, she was at it again:

For the public, we need to be able to understand why an individual sees a certain ad. Why does an individual see a message in their newsfeed that somebody else does not see? We are really the data cops here. We are doing a data audit to be able to understand and to pull back the curtain on the advertising model around political campaigning and election

I think the misleading impression being created here could attract the label ‘fake news’ just as much as any of the internet nonsense Denham and her fanbase are supposedly against. Data crimes are usually not real crimes, and in most cases, the ICO are not the cops. The GDPR doesn’t make anything a criminal offence, and the offences under the Data Protection Act 2018, like those in its predecessor the 1998 Act, are specific. It’s a criminal offence to take, procure or sell personal data without the permission of the data controller; it’s an offence to re-identify depersonalised data (in circumstances so tightly defined I doubt there will be a successful prosecution), and it can be an offence to oblige someone to make a subject access request. Admittedly, the DPA 2018 is stricter in this area – offences under the DPA 1998 were not recordable so you wouldn’t get a criminal record if you committed them, a position that is sensibly reversed in the new version.

However, in some circumstances, the DPA 2018 is less oriented towards offences than the  DPA 1998. A breach of an Enforcement or Information Notice is no longer subject to prosecution, being punishable by a penalty instead. That might result in stricter punishments, but that depends on Wilmslow showing a willingness to use the powers, and in any case, it’s not a criminal sanction. The much-vaunted criminal prosecution of SCL by the Commissioner over David Carroll’s subject access request is doomed in my opinion, but if it goes ahead, it will almost certainly be the last prosecution for a breach of a notice. None of the DP offences are punishable with prison, and for all Denham’s bluster about being a data cop, she never publicly applies the pressure for custodial sentences. For all his faults, her predecessor Christopher Graham never missed an opportunity to do so.

If Facebook willingly shared its customers personal data with Cambridge Analytica, it would not be a criminal offence. If they reused their customers’ data and sold it to list brokers, it would not be a criminal offence. As drafted, the ‘victim’ of most data protection offences would be the data controller, not the person whose data is misappropriated, sold or misused. Denham wants to conjure up images of cops and robbers, but she’s misleading the public. Who knows, maybe she doesn’t want people to realise that the only sanction for the majority of data transgressions are monetary penalty that she has the power to approve. Maybe she means ‘data crimes should be real crimes‘, but if that’s the case, that what she should say instead of giving the wrong impression.

There’s another problem. By setting herself up as the Internet Sheriff, Denham is creating expectations I don’t believe she’s prepared to meet. In all her public appearances, the Commissioner is clearly trying to mark out the internet and new technology as her manor. Supporters like Cadwalladr are only too happy to play along. The Observer piece contains a brief but devastating verdict on thirty or so years of ICO work and four previous Commissioners: “a somewhat dusty regulator dealing in a niche topic“. I’m the last person to defend the ICO, but this writes off Wilmslow’s endeavours on phone hacking, union blacklisting, the lost HMRC data disks and many DP and PECR fines which even I can’t deny have changed behaviour for the better in many sectors. I can’t say that Denham endorses this trashing of her predecessors’ efforts, but she hasn’t repudiated it either. What must her staff think of it?

Strip away the recent headlines for prosecutions and £500,000 fines that haven’t actually happened yet, and Denham’s record is hardly the Data Protection equivalent of Wyatt Earp taking on the Clantons. When dealing with the misuse of 1.6 million people’s data by the Royal Free Hospital and the AI company owned by Google (exactly the kind of tech territory we’re supposed to believe she wants to police), Denham’s ICO asked the Royal Free to sign an undertaking. There is no automatic sanction if they go back on it. Faced with multiple instances of charities profiling potential donors in secret (not a million miles away from the kind of surreptitious data gathering that attracts her current ire), Denham’s response was reportedly to cut the originally proposed fines, such that Oxfam was fined just £6000. Late in 2017, Sheriff Denham issued an enforcement notice against the Ministry of Justice over shameful and long-running subject access backlogs that doubtlessly affected many people in desperate legal circumstances. She gave them eight months to comply and sneaked the notice out on the last working day before Christmas without a press release.

You can tell me that the ICO has consistently issued monetary penalties on Denham’s watch but so did Graham, though the double whammy of £400,000 CMPs on both TalkTalk and Carphone Warehouse weigh against my argument to some extent. But beyond those, Denham has done nothing revolutionary or interesting in enforcement. There has been no action on accuracy or retention, and little on the vital first principle beyond the charity cases that were obviously started under Graham.

Outwardly, Denham seems poised and plausible. Fate has dealt her the biggest data protection story in a decade and some overly sympathetic press coverage, so maybe she’s right to milk it and build up her part. There’s no question that she has a higher public profile than any of the Commissioners who have gone before her, and I know a lot of people in the DP world who think that this is automatically a good thing. I’m not convinced. I think ‘data crimes are real crimes’ could become as unhelpful a distraction as the pervasive ‘GDPR = consent’ myth, and nothing about the past two years convinces me that Denham really has what it takes to round up the internet’s outlaws. As always, I will delighted to be proved wrong; some eyecatching monster scalps is what I have spent years of blogging asking for, and it will make my job easier for the next few years. But unless she really pulls out the big guns, the Commissioner’s legacy may be less Gunfight at the IT Corral, and more Denham’s Last Stand.

 

Any last requests?

A month ago, the redoubtable information rights expert and blogger Jon Baines wrote about an odd change on the ICO’s website. Just after the EU referendum vote, the ICO published a bold statement, calling for Data Protection standards in the UK to be equivalent to those in the EU. Shortly after, the statement disappeared. Around a week later, it was replaced by something more bland. Jon wondered why the ICO had resiled from their original position. He was, however, fortunate to receive a comment from an ICO spokesman:

“We noted the debates about different options that emerged following the referendum result and we decided to move to a simpler statement to avoid being too closely associated to any one particular position”

I believe that this statement is untrue.

After a conversation with Jon, I made an FOI request to the ICO for “Any recorded information on the decision to remove the statement, including who made the decision to remove it, and why it was removed“. Remarkably, the ICO claims to hold just one email that is relevant to my request (I’m not convinced, so I am following this up), but I think it’s reasonable to conclude that the ICO did not change the statement because they “noted the debates“. They changed the statement because the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the government department responsible for Data Protection, asked them to.

A DCMS official emailed Christopher Graham, the former Information Commissioner, directly on 28th June:

Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 09.07.02

The revised version is identical to the statement that you’ll find here on the ICO website.

The DCMS position is understandable – a few days after an unexpected vote, it’s not hard to imagine that they hadn’t reached a final position on GDPR. I’d be surprised if they were certain now, frustrating as that might be for the likes of me. But when the DCMS talks about it being far to early for “us” to be so definitive, they are not talking about the ICO, which is legally separate from and independent of Government. If the former Commissioner and his staff believed that the DPA is out of date and not fit for purpose, they were right to say so. Bear in mind that the statement in question was made after the vote, not when the ICO view could in any way have influenced its outcome (or when such an allegation could be made). DCMS are free to disagree with them, and indeed to ignore them if they so choose. I think GDPR-lite is a terrible idea, but they can pursue if they think it’s right. I’m not even sure I want to criticise the DCMS request – it’s quite clearly not an instruction.

However, for the ICO to change their statement (and by default, their official position on the GDPR) is a significant and worrying step. The ICO’s position can be identical to the DCMS one, but only if that’s because the ICO thinks DCMS is correct. It would be in no-one’s interests for the ICO to challenge and contradict DCMS merely to show that they’re nobody’s poodle. But Wilmslow’s reaction to the Brexit vote was clear, and now it’s not. Was the original position wrong? Is there any reason why the ICO cannot be allied to one particular position if they think it’s the right one?

Equally, if the ICO is going to change its public position, it should be honest with the public about why it is doing so. The statement on the ICO website says

At the annual report launch on 28 June 2016, Information Commissioner Christopher Graham updated the ICO statement

Whereas, what it should say is:

At the request of the DCMS, at the annual report launch on 28 June 2016, Information Commissioner Christopher Graham updated the ICO statement

As embarrassing as this might be, if the ICO is content to follow the debate about the future of the GDPR in the UK rather than leading it, it should be honest enough to admit that this is their position. I’ve already blogged about the bizarre situation that the ICO team that deals with complaints about political parties and councils are managed by a serving Labour Council leader. Here is another situation where the ICO’s ability to make robust, independent decisions appears to be compromised.

This depressing episode happened in the dying days of the previous Commissioner’s tenure; more than ever, I am glad that he is gone. We have a new Commissioner about whom I have seen and heard nothing but encouraging things. I can only hope that when faced with decisions like this in the future, Elizabeth Denham takes an more independent approach.

A bridge too far

June is a significant time for Data Protection in the UK. At the end the month, we have the EU vote (where a vote to leave will throw at least the timetable for implementation of the new General Data Protection Regulation into disarray) and Christopher Graham steps down as Information Commissioner, to be replaced by Elizabeth Denham. There are several reasons to be optimistic about Denham’s appointment – she is the first Information Commissioner to have previous experience of privacy and FOI work, she has already taken on big corporate interests in Canada, and she isn’t Richard Thomas.

However, Denham inherits a series of headaches as she begins her reign as Elizabeth II, and it’s difficult to know which of them will be the hardest to shake off. There is the GDPR implementation, which would be a challenge even without the uncertainty that Brexit will create. She also has to tackle the ICO’s lack of independence from Government, which results in scandalous outcomes like the admission in an FOI response that Wilmslow takes orders from its sponsor department (see answer 3 here). But perhaps biggest of all is the ICO’s approach to enforcement.

On FOI, the ICO doesn’t approach enforcement – it does pointless monitoring and audits without any evidence of success, and the major government departments use the ICO as their internal review, sometimes not bothering to answer requests unless ordered to do so by an ICO case officer. The sole enforcement notice in the past five years wasn’t even promoted by the office because the now departed Deputy Commissioner Graham Smith didn’t want to draw attention to the failure to tackle Whitehall’s FOI abuses.

On Data Protection, the approach is to enforce against self-reported security breaches. There is nothing wrong with lots of enforcement on security – it’s a significant requirement of the legislation and many people are concerned about it. The problem is that Wilmslow doesn’t enforce on anything else, despite breaches of the other principles being widespread and obvious. Unless I missed one, the ICO has issued 61 Data Protection monetary penalties since getting the power to do so. Two have been for non-security breaches: Pharmacy 2U (1st principle data sharing without consent) and Prudential Insurance (accuracy). The overwhelming majority of enforcement notices (and undertakings, if you count them, which you shouldn’t) are on security matters. This is despite the fact that the UK has a massive culture of unlawful data sharing, over-retention, flouted subject access and perhaps most obvious, rampant, damaging inaccuracy. The ICO does nothing about it.

A classic example is a story reported in the Observer about the Dartford Crossing between Kent and Essex. Automatic Number Plate Recognition is used by Highways England to issue penalty charges to drivers who use the crossings without paying by phone or web within a fixed period of time. The only problem is that drivers who have never used the crossing are getting the penalties, but it is more or less inconceivable that the ICO will take action.

Having used the crossing myself, I can confirm that there are some Data Protection issues with the signage around the bridge / tunnel – the Observer article explains well how the signs can easily be confused with those for the London congestion charge, which works entirely differently. This is, in itself, a potential data protection breach, as personal data needs to be obtained fairly, especially when the data being obtained (the license plate) will not only be used to levy a charge, but because court action may result for non-payment.

One person is quoted in the article as having being charged  because the system misread a ‘C’ as a ‘G’. The Observer also reports that hire car users sometimes find penalties aimed at the wrong person because Highways England don’t specify a date that the charge applies to. In another case, the person receiving the charge had sold the car in question, and had a letter from DVLA to prove it. As with most of these situations, terrible customer service and inflexible processes mean that even when a charge is applied to the wrong person, nobody in the food chain has the authority or the inclination to sort things out. Both of the individuals cited in detail by the Observer were headed for the baliffs until the Observer got involved, and all action was terminated. Research by Auto Express notes that only 1 in 25 people appeal their penalty, but 80% of those that do are successful.

Every time Highways England / Dart Charge issues a penalty against the wrong person, it is a breach of the fourth Data Protection principle, which states that “Personal data shall be accurate, and where necessary, up to date”. Note the lack of any qualification or context here – data is accurate, or it’s a breach. Clearly, this means that most organisations are breach DP every minute of every day simply because of typos, but even adopting a flexible approach, there can be no doubt that demanding money and threatening court action is a situation where the Data Controller must be certain that the data is accurate, and if they get the wrong person, it’s a breach. The security principle talks about “appropriate measures” to prevent incidents, but the fourth principle doesn’t: it’s absolute.

Highways England / Dart Charge have breached the DPA, but would it be possible for the ICO to take action? In order to issue a monetary penalty, the ICO has to meet a series of tests.

1. The breach is serious

Dart Charge are pursuing people for debts they don’t owe. It’s serious.

2. The breach is deliberate

This one is potentially tricky, as we would need evidence that Highways England know that they are operating on the basis of inaccurate information in order for the breach to be deliberate. I can’t prove that Highways England are deliberately pursuing people, knowing that they are the wrong targets, although one of the Observer readers quoted gives clear evidence that they might be: “I spent 20 minutes trying to get through to someone who kept telling me I had to pay, even though he could see the problem”. However, we don’t need deliberate if we have:

3. The Data Controller knew or ought to have known about the risk and failed to take steps to prevent it

This test is clearly met – Highways England know that most of their penalty charges are overturned on appeal, they know that their system misreads licence plate characters, that it fails to properly distinguish dates, and they know that people contact them multiple times with evidence that the charge is wrong, but they ignore this evidence until they are embarrassed into action by a national newspaper. The breaches are still happening.

4. The breach is likely to cause damage or distress

Innocent individuals who have not used the Dartford Crossing are being pursued and threatened with legal action if they do not pay money that they do not owe. The breach is causing damage and distress and is highly likely to do so.

The ICO does not enforce on accuracy and they won’t touch this case. If I tried to report it to them, they would ignore my complaint because I have not been affected (if an affected person complained, they would do an unenforceable assessment). They do not ask Data Controllers to report incidents of damaging inaccuracy, and they do not even advocate investigating incidents of inaccuracy in the way that they do for security. This despite that fact that inaccuracy leads to the wrong medical treatment being given, innocent people’s houses being raided by the police, and old men nearly drowning in canals. The ICO took no enforcement action in any of these cases, despite them being in the public domain. I have dozens of others. Meanwhile, the Commissioner chunters on about a series of accidents and mishaps without any direct evidence of harm (ironically, even the pace of security enforcement has slowed, with only three DP monetary penalties at all so far this year).

Whatever Ms Denham’s priorities might be, she cannot ignore this. The ICO has shirked its responsibilities on the other principles for too long. A quick glance at the articles relevant to enforcement show that the GDPR is specifically designed to give breaches of the principles the higher maximum penalty. It’s a riposte to the ICO’s enforcement priorities since the HMRC lost discs incident in 2007, and it’s a bridge that the new Commissioner must be willing to cross.

The Gamekeeper’s Fear of the Penalty

Amongst the hype over the end of negotiations over the new EU Data Protection Regulation, one theme kept emerging again and again: Big Penalties. It’s understandable that people might want to focus on it. The UK goes from a maximum possible penalty of £500,000 to one of just under £15,000,000 (at today’s Euro conversion rate) or even 4% of a private enterprise’s annual worldwide turnover. Only a fool would say that it wasn’t worth talking about. It’s much more interesting than the bit about Codes of Practice, and it’s easier to explain than the section about certification bodies.

It would be equally foolish to assume, however, that penalties on this scale will rain down from Wilmslow like thunderbolts from Zeus. At the same time as many were talking up the future, the Information Commissioner issued two monetary penalties under the current regime, one under Data Protection (£250 for the Bloomsbury Patient Network) and one under the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (£30,000 for the Daily Telegraph). The £250 penalty is the lowest the ICO has ever issued for anything, while the PECR one is the lowest for a breach of the marketing rules, notwithstanding that the Daily Telegraph is probably the richest PECR target at which the ICO has taken aim.

You could argue that the embarrassment caused to the Telegraph carries an added sting (the ICO has never before taken enforcement action against a newspaper). It’s equally likely that the oligarchs who own the paper will consider £30,000 (£24,000 if they pay up in 35 days) to be a price worth paying if it had the desired effect on the outcome of a very close election. They’ll probably do it again.

In any case, the Bloomsbury Patient Network CMP is much worse. The Regulation calls for monetary penalties to be effective, proportionate and dissuasive, and yet everybody at the ICO thought that a £250 penalty, split between three people, was action worth taking and promoting. The Commissioner himself, Christopher Graham told the DMA in March 2015 that the ICO was not a ‘traffic warden‘, but if the Bloomsbury Three pay up on time, the £66.67 penalty they each face is no worse than a parking ticket you didn’t pay in the first fortnight.

The ICO’s press release claims that the penalty would have been much higher if the data controller had not been an ‘unincorporated association’, but this is irrelevant. The ICO issued a £440,000 PECR penalty against two individuals (Chris Niebel and Gary McNeish) in 2012, while the Claims Management Regulator recently issued a whopping £850,000 penalty against Zahier Hussain for cold calling and similar dodgy practices. The approach on PECR and marketing is positively steely. The problem clearly lies in Data Protection enforcement, and that is what the Regulation is concerned with.

The size and resources of the offending data controller are a secondary consideration; the test is whether the penalty will cause undue financial hardship. The ICO could bankrupt someone or kill their business if they deserved it. The Bloomsbury Patient Network’s handling of the most sensitive personal data was sloppy and incompetent, and had already led to breaches of confidentiality before the incident that gave rise to the penalty. Enforcement action at a serious level was clearly justified. Even if the level of the penalty was high enough to deter well-meaning amateurs from processing incredibly sensitive data, this would be a good thing. If you’re not capable of handling data about a person’s HIV status with an appropriate level of security, you have absolutely no business doing so at all, no matter good your intentions are. Donate to the Terence Higgins Trust by all means, but do not touch anyone’s data. If the ICO lacks the guts to issue a serious penalty, it would be better to do nothing at all and keep quiet, rather than display their gutlessness to the world.

Whoever made this decision cannot have considered what message it would send to organisations large and small who already think of Data Protection as pettifogging red tape, low on the agenda. Is there an organisation anywhere in the country that would consider the slim chance of being fined £66.67 to be a deterrent against anything. A fine is a punishment (it has to cause pain to those who pay it) and it is a lesson to others (it has to look painful to the wider world). The Bloomsbury Patient Network CMP is neither.

Despite the increased expectations raised by the GDPR, the ICO is actually losing its appetite for DP enforcement, with 13 Data Protection CMPs in 2013, but only 6 in 2014 and 7 in 2015. Meanwhile, there have been 24 unenforceable DP undertakings in 2015 alone, including one against Google which you’re welcome to explain the point of, and another (Flybe) which revealed endemic procedural and training problems in the airline which are more significant than the moronic cock-ups that went on at the Bloomsbury Patient Network. Wilmslow is so inert that two different organisations have told me this year that ICO staff asked them to go through the motions of self-reporting incidents that ICO already knew about, because the only way the enforcement wheels could possibly begin to turn was if an incident was self-reported. ICO staff actually knowing that something had happened wasn’t enough. It’s these same timid people who will be wielding the new powers in 2018.

Admittedly, there will be a new Commissioner, and it’s possible that the Government will pick a fearsome enforcement fiend to go after Data Protection like a dog in a sausage factory. You’ll forgive me if I don’t hold my breath. Nevertheless, something in Wilmslow has to change, because the General Data Protection Regulation represents a clear rebuke to the ICO’s DP enforcement approach.

Most obviously, in the long list of tasks in Article 52 that each Data Protection Authority must carry out, the first is very powerful: they must “monitor and enforce” (my emphasis) the application of the Regulation. Someone recently said that in certain circumstances, some organisations require a ‘regulatory nudge’, but the Regulation is much more emphatic than that. The ICO’s preference for hand-holding, nuzzling and persuading stakeholders (especially those where former ICO colleagues have gone to work) is a world away from an enforcement-led approach.

The huge increase of penalties throws down the gauntlet, especially when the ICO has rarely approached the current, comparatively low UK maximum. But the ICO should also pay close attention to the detail of Article 79 of the Regulation, where the new penalties are laid out. Of the 59 ICO monetary penalties, 57 have been for breaches of the 7th principle (security). The Regulation has two levels of penalty, the lower with a maximum of €10,000,000 (or 2% of annual turnover), and the higher with a maximum of €20,000,000 (or 4% of annual turnover). Breaches of Article 30, a very close analogue to Principle 7, is in the lower tier.

Admittedly, the higher penalty applies to all of the principles in Article 5 (which in a somewhat circular fashion includes security), but it explicitly covers “conditions for consent“, “data subject rights” and infringements involving transfers to third countries, areas untouched by the ICO’s DP penalty regime. The Regulation envisages monetary penalties at the higher level for processing without a condition, inaccuracy, poor retention, subject access as well as new rights like the right to be forgotten or the right to object. The ICO has issued a solitary penalty on fairness, and just one on accuracy – it has never fined on subject access, despite that being the largest single cause of data subject complaints.

The Regulation bites hard on the use of consent and legitimate interest, and misuse of data when relying on them would again carry the higher penalty. Most organisations that rely on consent or legitimate interest are outside the public sector, who rely more on legal obligations and powers. Indeed, the Regulation even allows for the public sector to be excluded from monetary penalties altogether if a member state wishes it. Nevertheless, since they got the power to issue them, only 24% of the ICO’s civil monetary penalties have been served on organisations outside the public sector (2 for charities and 12 for private sector).

I doubt the ICO is ready for what the Regulation demands, and what data subjects will naturally expect from such a deliberate attempt to shape the enforcement of privacy rights. The penalties are too low. The dwindling amount of DP enforcement is based almost exclusively on self-reported security breaches. While the Regulation might feed a few private sector cases onto the conveyor belt by way of mandatory reporting of security breaches, it will do nothing for the ICO’s ability to identify suitable cases for anything else. Few ICO CMPs spring from data subject complaints, and anyone who has ever tried to alert Wilmslow to an ongoing breach when they are not directly affected knows how painful a process that can be. The ICO has not enforced on most of the principles.

It’s been my habit whenever talking about the Regulation to people I’m working for to emphasise the period we’re about to enter. There are two years before the Regulation comes into force; two years to get ready, to look at practice and procedure, two years to tighten up. The need to adapt to the future goes double for the Information Commissioner’s Office. Instead of canoodling with stakeholders and issuing wishy-washy guidance, wringing its hands and promising to be an ‘enabler’, the ICO should take a long hard look in the mirror. Its job is to enforce the law; everything else is an optional extra. It’s wise to assume that the wish for total DP harmonisation will probably be a pipe dream; it’s equally obvious that the Regulation will allow for much easier comparisons between EU member states, and the ICO’s lightest of light touches will be found wanting.