Lateral Thinking

Last week, I wrote a blog about the ‘personal data agency’ Yo-Da, outlining my concerns about their grandiose claims, the lack of detail about how their service works and their hypocritical decision to ignore a subject access request I made to them. Predictably, this led to further online tussles between myself and Benjamin Falk, the company’s founder and ‘chief talker’. As a result of our final conversation, Yo-Da has effectively disappeared from the internet. Clearly, I touched a nerve.

Yo-Da’s website made concrete claims about what their service did, and in fact had done. There were testimonials from satisfied users, and three case studies. Although it was clear that the service wasn’t operating yet, the testimonials were unambiguous: here is what Yo-Da has done for me. There was no hint that they were fictional, nothing to suggest that the service couldn’t do what the site said.

Yo-Da systematically and automatically exercises your data rights

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Use Yo-Da to ask any company in Europe to delete your personal information

User ‘Samuel’ claimed “Now I go to Yo-Da, search for the company whose (sic) been breached, and with 1-click find out what is happening with my personal information”, while ‘Nathan’ said “Yo-Da was simple to use and helped me understand just how many businesses in Europe have my data.

None of this is true. Yo-Da do not have a working product that does these things. As Falk put it to me “Our technology is still under development” and “We have some ideas that are working. They aren’t perfect.” I am not saying that Yo-Da aren’t developing an automated data rights service; I’m certain that they are. I’m not saying a product will never launch; I expect that it will and I am looking forward to it, though perhaps not for the same reason as Samuel and Nathan. The point is, it doesn’t exist now and the website said that it did.

Originally, Falk claimed that he had deliberately ignored my subject access request because it was unfounded. ‘Unpleasant’ people like me don’t have data rights, he claimed. This didn’t sound right, especially as after I published my blog, Yo-Da’s DPO (Trilateral Research) suddenly woke up and tried to process my request, as if this was the first they’d heard of it. During our correspondence, they made it clear that they agreed with Falk’s decision that my request was unfounded, but were silent on the decision to ignore it.

But in my argument with Falk, he admitted the truth “We have an outsourced DPO for a reason; we can’t afford a full time one. That’s why the SAR went ignored; our service isn’t live yet and so we didn’t expect to receive any requests, because we aren’t collecting any personal data on anyone

In a single tweet, Falk said a lot. He was admitting that all of the testimonials and case studies were fake (he ultimately said to me that they were “obviously fake”). At the same time, he was also not telling the truth. Falk said that the website was a “dummy” to “gauge interest”. In other words, the site exists as an advert for a theoretical service, but its other purpose is to persuade people to sign up to Yo-Da’s mailing list. It was designed to collect personal data. Yo-Da were saying ‘sign up with us to use this service that actually works’. I believe that this is a direct breach of the first GDPR principle on fairness and transparency. I want to know why Trilateral Research acted as a DPO for an organisation that did this.

Falk said that he was joking when he said that he ignored my request on purpose, but Trilateral didn’t acknowledge that. They wrote of a ‘delay’ in acknowledging my request, but concurred with Falk’s unfounded decision. That decision was never made; my SAR was just missed. Nobody was checking the ‘dpo@yo-da.co’ email account – Falk wasn’t, and neither were they, despite being the putative DPO. Either they didn’t know what had happened, or they didn’t care. They definitely backed up their client rather than digging into why a SAR had been received and ignored on spurious grounds without their involvement. Let’s be generous and assume that they didn’t know that Falk was bullshitting. Their client had taken a controversial and disputable decision in a SAR case, and he hadn’t consulted them before he did it, but they didn’t acknowledge that. They backed the unfounded refusal.

Even if Yo-Da one day launches a product that successfully facilitates automated data rights requests to every company in Europe (prediction: this will never happen), they definitely don’t have that product now, and their website claimed that they did. Either Trilateral didn’t know that this is the case, which means that they failed to do basic due diligence on their client, or they knew that the Yo-Da website was soliciting personal data on the basis of false claims.

When I pointed out to Falk that all of the sign-up data had been collected unlawfully (it’s not fair and transparent to gather data about a service that doesn’t exist), the conversation ended. The Yo-Da website instantly vanished, and their Twitter account was deactivated minutes later. I’m certain that Falk will be back, his little spat with me considered to be no more than a bump in the road to world domination. But forget him; what does this say about Trilateral? The best defence I can think of is that they took Falk’s money to be in-name-only DPO but didn’t scrutinise the company or their claims. This is bad. If they had any idea that Yo-Da doesn’t currently do what the website claimed, it’s worse.

According to the European Data Protection Board, the professional qualities that must be demonstrated by a Data Protection Officer include “integrity and high professional ethics”. I seriously question whether Trilateral have demonstrated integrity and high professional ethics in this case. It’s plainly unethical to be named as DPO for an organisation, and then ignore what comes into the DPO email address. Article 38(4) of the GDPR states “Data subjects may contact the data protection officer with regard to all issues related to processing of their personal data and to the exercise of their rights under this Regulation” but Trilateral weren’t even listening. It’s unethical to take on a client without knowing in detail how their services work (or even whether their services work), and that’s the only defence I can see in this case. It’s unethical to be DPO for an organisation that is making false or exaggerated claims to obtain personal data.

I regularly get asked by clients if I can recommend an outsourced DPO or a company who can do the kind of sustained consultancy work that a solo operator like me doesn’t have the capacity for. There are a few names I’m happy to give. I have no hesitation in saying that on the basis of this shoddy episode, I wouldn’t touch Trilateral Research with a bargepole.

The Curse of the Padlock

One of the dangers of working in Data Protection is the risk of becoming a pedant. Precision matters; court cases have turned on the meaning of individual words like ‘likely’ and ‘distress’. The legislation is a maze of definitions and concepts that the competent practitioner needs to get to grips with. Lazy thinking can be revealed by an inability to get the details right, so it’s possible to become obsessed with the detail. Even the BCS Data Protection exam has a question which requires you to list the elements of the definition of consent in the right order. It’s easy to lapse into pedantry, to point out every wrongly quoted article, every jumbled phrase.

Nevertheless, getting a simple thing right is often important. GDPR does not cover ‘personal identifiable information’; it covers ‘personal data’ and the definition of the two is not the same. A person who talks about PII in the context of European Data Protection is starting in the wrong place (the US), and can make mistakes as a result. Another error that seems to be creeping in all over the place is more profound, and risks entrenching one of the biggest misconceptions about how data protection works, a misconception many of us have spent years trying to break down.

The problem is the phrase ‘data privacy’.

I see it everywhere – on LinkedIn naturally, in news coverage of the sector, and predictably, the ICO has fallen for it. They describe themselves as “The UK’s independent authority set up to uphold information rights in the public interest, promoting openness by public bodies and data privacy for individuals.” Look at the Data Privacy Advisory Service, who summarise their services as “At DPAS we help organisations safeguard the fundamental human right to have data kept private by putting in place the best possible protection to keep it secure. This is delivered in line with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and The Data Protection Act 2018.”

The idea is nonsense. It doesn’t exist. There is no right to data privacy – there is certainly no fundamental right ‘to have data kept private’. This isn’t a snide dig at someone quoting the wrong article. The concept of ‘data privacy’ is a complete misunderstanding of what Data Protection is for, and everyone who promotes it is actively thwarting the efforts of the rest of us to implement data protection in a practical way.

Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights says: ‘Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence“. This right is not absolute; it can be interfered with (only when necessary) in the interests of “national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others“. The right is not just about data – it certainly can be, as is evidenced by cases where celebrities and others use the privacy right to prevent the use of images that breach their right to privacy. But the right to privacy doesn’t have to be about data at all – you can breach a person’s right to privacy by simply observing them, by being in a place where they expect privacy, or by denying them the opportunity to do something privately. Data doesn’t have to come into it.

Clearly, if you did a Venn diagram, there would be circumstances where privacy and data protection overlap. By following the Data Protection principles when you handle a person’s private correspondence for example, you probably also do what’s necessary to protect their privacy. The same is true for confidentiality – not all confidential data is personal data, but a decent stab at the principles will probably respect both. There is, however, a significant portion of the Venn diagram where Data Protection and Privacy do not meet, and the DP part of that is important.

The notion of ‘Data Privacy’ obscures two vital elements of Data Protection. First, data protection is not only about private data. It is covers all personal data, private, secret, and public. For years, I have been banging my head against the brick wall of ‘it’s not personal data, it’s in the public domain’. Trying to explain to people that data like photographs, email addresses and other publicly available data is still personal data, just available and easier to use than some other data has long been a difficulty. There was a chink of light in Article 14 of the GDPR which clearly states that a person should be informed even when their data is accessed from ‘publicly accessible sources’. This explicit recognition that public data is still personal data is very helpful, but the notion that ‘data protection’ and ‘data privacy’ are interchangeable muddies the waters again.

Second, in related news, GDPR is not about keeping data private; it is about ensuring that personal data processing is properly regulated. For years, Data Protection has been plagued by the padlock. The Information Commissioner used it as a logo (‘but the padlock is unlocked’ is a defence that umpteen different ICO folk have used when I complained about it), and when I did a Google image search for ‘Data Protection’ today, this is the top set of results:

Screenshot 2019-05-26 at 09.17.53

The problem with the Data Protection Padlock is that it presents the legislation as something that locks data up, keeps it away from people. This understanding of data protection leads directly to the belief that disclosure of personal data is inherently problematic and exceptional, and that belief is toxic. I’m not persuaded that Victoria Climbie or Peter Connelly died solely because data about them wasn’t shared, but the pervasive fear of data sharing didn’t help. The GDPR says that ‘the protection of natural persons in relation to the processing of personal data is a fundamental right‘. The word ‘privacy‘ isn’t mentioned anywhere beyond a reference in a footnote to the ePrivacy Directive, and the processing of personal data is firmly put in the context of operating the EU’s internal market: “This regulation is intended to contribute to the accomplishment of an area of freedom, security and justice, and of an economic union“.

You can’t achieve the economic union by locking all the data away, by keeping it private. To characterise data protection law as being about ‘data privacy’ is to misrepresent its purpose completely. European Data Protection is a compromise – trade is underpinned by the use, even the exploitation of personal data, but people have rights, they have control over their data in some (but not all) circumstances, and the legislation built on foundations of transparency and fairness, not privacy. Arguably, the GDPR tries to even up the power imbalance in some circumstances, but it is not designed to lock up data and keep it private.

Of course, some people might be using ‘privacy’ as a synonym for ‘secure’ – the DPAS statement above seems to elide the two. Only a fool would want to play down the importance of security in the context of using any personal data, but the reduction of Data Protection solely to security is as destructive to a proper understanding of it as the privacy / protection mess. We’ve managed to drag Data Protection out of the IT department, and we need to stamp on this idea that security is the exemplar of good DP practice. Your data can be private and secure, but kept for no good reason, for too long, in an inaccurate state, and there could be too much of it.

Some personal data is private and should remain so. In many situations, the processing of personal data without an eye on people’s legitimate expectations of privacy, especially when monitoring, watching or listening to them, is likely to be unfair and so unlawful. There is a strong link between Data Protection and Privacy, and any attempt to divorce them would be stupid. But the use of ‘data privacy’ as a synonym for data protection is misleading and dangerous – it perpetuates a fundamental misreading of what the legislation is for, and makes the lives of everyone trying to make GDPR work effectively a thousands times harder. It’s time to take this nonsense, lock it up and throw away the key.

Home, James

A few months ago, I wrote a blog about data protection and nonsense, highlighting inaccurate claims made by training companies, marketers and pressure groups. A bad tempered spat ensued in comments on LinkedIn between myself and Russell James, the marketer behind the lobbying attempt to change the ICO’s funding model to include cost recovery. James insisted that it didn’t matter that a letter sent by four MPs to the DCMS asking for the change, apparently at his instigation, contained inaccurate claims (the description of DP breaches as ‘crimes’) and embarrassingly got the name of the Information Commissioner wrong (it’s the Independent Commissioner of Information, according to the distinguished Parliamentarians, or whoever actually wrote it).

I asked James what the Information Commissioner’s Office themselves thought of his plan to allow the ICO to recoup the costs of investigations from those “found guilty of data crimes” (which I think means those who are in the receiving end of enforcement from Wilmslow, although it’s hard to be 100% certain). The idea that someone would persuade MPs to lobby the ICO’s sponsor department to change their funding mechanism without at least the tacit approval of the Commissioner or her staff seemed ridiculous, but the normally prolix Mr James was silent on the matter. So I decided to ask the Information Commissioner.

I made an FOI request including all of the following information:
1) Any recorded information about approaches made by Russell James or others to the ICO about the idea of the ICO adopting a cost-recovery model, including any correspondence with Mr James or his associates.
2) Any responses provided to James or others about the ICO adopting a cost-recovery model.
3) Any correspondence with Tom Tugendhat, Yvette Cooper, Dominic Grieve or Damian Collins, or their staff about the idea of a cost-recovery model, or the letter sent to the DCMS
4) Any internal discussion of the cost-recovery model.
5) Any correspondence, notes of meetings or other records of meetings between Mr James and any ICO member of staff, including the names of the staff. (this was subsequently clarified to cover only the cost recovery model, and not any other correspondence Mr James might have had with the ICO.)

Whatever the ICO made of Mr James’ ambitious plan, I was certain that this request would capture their thoughts. At worst, the ICO might refuse to disclose their internal discussions of the idea, but at least I might get some sense of the extent of them.

The ICO provided me with three paragraphs from a letter sent to them by Mr James around the time the MPs wrote to the DCMS. James told me that ICI letter was written by the office of Tom Tugendhat, but this one was remarkably similar in tone, and had the same lack of understanding of how the Data Protection enforcement regime works. James told the ICO that they were about to “leverage significant revenue“. Greatly increased income for the DCMS via the huge sums GDPR fines paid to them would, James asserted, result in much more cash for Wilmslow. This sounds great, if it wasn’t for the the fact that the ICO hasn’t issued a single penalty under the GDPR yet. More importantly, he is confused about what happens to the penalties, and how the ICO is funded. DP penalties have always been paid into the Treasury’s consolidated fund, bypassing the DCMS altogether. Moreover, the ICO doesn’t receive any funding from the DCMS for its Data Protection work. As this document (freely available on the ICO’s website) states, all the ICO’s DP work is paid for by DP fees collected from Data Controllers, as has been the case for many years. The ICO could do a CNIL-style €50 million penalty every week, and neither they nor the DCMS would see a cent of it.

James also claims in his letter that his campaign has “ministerial support from government officials“; I don’t know if that he’s claiming the support of ministers, or the support of government officials, but the phrase itself sounds like it was written by someone who doesn’t know the difference between the two. I’d ask him which it was, but I sent him a single direct message asking for comments before publishing the last blog I wrote this issue. He ignored me, but later pretended that I had deluged him with many such messages. If Tugendhat hadn’t tweeted the ICI letter, I’d think it was fake.

Whatever the shortcomings of Mr James’ insights into Data Protection (when I told him I was making an FOI about his plan, he thought it was the same as a SAR), his confidence in the success of the James Tax is hard to fault. According to him, it is now “a short time before your department (ICO) will have a more resilient financial footing“. Given this thrilling news, one can only speculate at how excited the fine folk of the ICO would be at the impending cash bonanza.

Alas, apart from a copy of the ICI letter, which the ICO sensibly chose not to provide to me as it was plainly in the public domain, they held no data about the James Tax. None. Nothing. Nada. Indeed, they made a point of telling me: “For clarity, I can confirm that we do not hold any information which falls within the scope of the other parts of your request“.  This means that they did not have any recorded discussions about it, share the letter internally, or even reply to that part of Mr James’ letter. If anyone had anything to say about the James Tax, they didn’t want to write it down.

Mr James has set himself up as the doughty defender of “Liz and the crew” as he once described his surprisingly reticent friends in Wilmslow to me. He has launched a campaign to change the law and roped four two highly respectable MPs in to support it. I think it is reasonable to ask whether someone with such a misbegotten understanding of how Data Protection works is the right person to change it. Given that the ICO has seemingly offered no support, not even a comment on his plan, I assume that they do not welcome the idea. It’s not hard to imagine why – calculating the costs of an investigation is extra work and bureaucracy. Moreover, if the ICO is entitled to claim the costs of victory, surely it should be forced to foot the bill for defeat – every time the ICO’s enforcement team’s investigation results in no action, the ICO should contribute to the time the controller spent in answering the many letters and information notices for which the office is celebrated.

If a case goes to appeal, while the James Tax would presumably allow the costs of going to the Tribunal to be recouped if successful, for fairness’ sake, the same logic must apply the other way around. If the Tribunal vindicates the ICO’s target (and losses at the Tribunal are not unknown, especially in recent times), presumably the ICO would have to pay the legal bills too. There are already financial incentives and advantages for the Commissioner. If the ICO issues a financial penalty, the controller gets a 20% discount if they choose not to appeal. If a controller’s actions are truly misbegotten and they choose to appeal, the Tribunal and the courts above can award costs against the recalcitrant data controller. To change the relationship further in the ICO’s interests should not just be one-way.

If the James Tax includes recouping costs of dealing with appeals (and my arguments with him on LinkedIn suggests that it does), this will also have a negative effect on one of the most important parts of the DP enforcement system. Any controller who has been fined will, according to the James Tax, already face the added cost of the ICO’s investigation. Appealing – already a roll of dice in many cases – will be that much more of a risk. As well as their own costs, controllers will have to factor in the additional ICO tally.

We already have Denham grumbling about appeals, even using a speech by Mark Zuckerberg about possible regulation in the US as an excuse to demand he drops his appeal against the Facebook fine in the UK. James’ ideas might further suppress the possibility of appealing against ICO decisions. For everyone involved in the sector, this would be a disaster. To borrow James’ inaccurate criminal characterisation of DP enforcement, the ICO is already the investigator, prosecutor and judge – I don’t want to strengthen that hand any more. Moreover, in the interview above, Denham signalled disdain for the concerns of ordinary people, stating that they don’t complain about the right things. As part of its analytics investigation, the ICO has enforced on cases where there have been no complaints. Denham’s ICO need to be challenged, and challenged regularly. The tribunals and the courts frequently give detailed and helpful explanations of how the law works – ICO never produced guidance on consent as useful as the Tribunal’s decision in Optical Express, and whether the ICO wins or loses, all sorts of insights are available in Tribunal decisions.

Nobody appeals lightly. Combine Denham’s hostility to challenge with the James Tax, and we might lose vital opportunities for debate and caselaw. You can dismiss this blog as just an opportunity for me to take the piss out of another GDPR certified professional, but James has set himself up as a public campaigner. He wants to change how the ICO is funded and how all controllers are potentially treated. This cannot just pass without scrutiny, especially as he appears to lack both an understanding of the system he wants to change, and the support of the regulator whose powers he wants to alter. If the people arguing for changes don’t even think it’s important what the ICO is called or whether it’s a ‘department’ or not, we should wonder what other important details they have missed.

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.

A case in point(lessness)

The Information Commissioner did a bit of business in Hendon Magistrates’ Court recently, as SCL Elections was fined £15000 for breaching an enforcement notice. Long ago, Professor David Carroll made a subject access request to Cambridge Analytica. As Cambridge Analytica was based in the US where SARs do not apply, they passed it to SCL Elections, a related company established in the UK, to process his request. Having received a response, Carroll claimed it was inadequate and complained to the ICO. After some correspondence, SCL and Cambridge Analytica went into administration. The ICO then served SCL with an enforcement notice over Carroll’s SAR, and SCL failed to comply with or appeal it.

On the face of it, it’s a win – fines in the Mags for breaches of ICO notices are usually in the low thousands, and after more than a year of a multi-million-pound investigation into data analytics, this seems a rare example of something actually happening. Following the humiliation of the first GDPR enforcement notice against AIQ, which had to be withdrawn and replaced, and the Facebook £500,000 penalty which was immediately appealed, you could argue that it’s a solid result for Team Wilmslow.

But the ICO reaction is weird – their website misleadingly claims that SCL was ‘also known as Cambridge Analytica’. SCL was a shareholder in Cambridge Analytica but the two companies are separate and based in different countries. Moreover, the ICO press release states “In pleading guilty, the company has accepted it should have responded fully to Professor Carroll’s subject access request and the ICO’s notice in the first place” but this is not what reality suggests. SCL’s guilty plea was helpfully tweeted out by Denham’s hagiographer Carole Cadwalladr, and it clearly says that they were pleading guilty to failing to answer the notice, not to any ‘misuse of data’.

Denham seems stuck in the past. This prosecution is, she says, ‘the first against Cambridge Analytica’ and her comment implies it won’t be the last, despite the fact that both SCL and Cambridge Analytica are being wound up. Since May 2018, the ICO’s needle on GDPR has barely twitched beyond that abortive AIQ notice, but the noise on analytics has been deafening. Whatever Cambridge Analytica did back in 2016, a massive change like GDPR requires a Commissioner completely focussed on implementing it. Stories about delays and poor decisions at the ICO are rife in the Data Protection community at the moment; the ICO can’t even keep its website up and running, and yet Denham seems dedicated to fighting old battles like a Japanese soldier lost in the Pacific who doesn’t know WW2 is over.

I can’t see what the SCL case has achieved. Carroll has trumpeted the criminal nature of the prosecution, claiming it proves that CA was a ‘criminal enterprise’, but the case is a relic. Under GDPR / DPA 2018, ignoring an enforcement notice is no longer a criminal offence and so there will never be another case like this. SCL might have pleaded guilty, but the substantive question of whether they gave Carroll all the data he was entitled to remains unresolved. They didn’t admit that they hadn’t, and the court cannot order them to deliver any outstanding data even if the judge thought that they should. The punishment for ignoring an enforcement notice can only ever be a financial one – a fine on conviction under the old rules, a penalty from the ICO under the new. The ICO must have known this going in.

The idea, of course, is a data controller will comply with an enforcement notice rather than face the possible punishment, but when the ICO served the notice on SCL, they were already in administration, so they were unlikely to respond in the normal way. Indeed, as the administrators confirmed, the prosecution was only possible because they gave ICO permission to take it forward. In a bizarre twist, the administrators’ guilty plea also revealed that data relating to Carroll isn’t in their possession – it is stored on the servers seized by the ICO on the celebrated Night of the Blue Jackets. So we’re in the bewildering position of the ICO starting enforcement on a defunct company, aware that the enforcement in question cannot result in any personal data being disclosed, and in the full knowledge that any relevant information is actually in their possession. It’s DP enforcement designed by MC Escher. You have to wonder why ICO didn’t just give Carroll his data themselves.

Underneath the surface froth, there are some interesting issues. SCL’s approach to the ICO (as set out in the enforcement notice) is an exemplar in how not to deal with a regulator. In my former life as a Data Protection Officer, I was guilty of a ‘make them blink first’ approach to ICO case officers, but I never did anything as stupid as to make comparisons to the Taliban in my correspondence, or to demand that the ICO stop harassing my employer. More importantly, SCL committed a glaring tactical mistake by switching their approach mid-race. Initially, they answered Carroll’s request, but then u-turned into a claim that his request was invalid because he was a US citizen (hence the remark that he was no more entitled to make a request than a member of the Taliban). In my opinion, had they stuck to their guns and argued that there was no more data, the case would have been less appealing as an enforcement issue. In deciding to change tack, the onus is on them to convince the ICO of the change, rather than getting all holier-than-thou.

Equally interesting is Carroll’s claim that he should be treated as a creditor of the business, which he outlined to the FTProf Carroll argues that the data originally held by Cambridge Analytica actually belongs to the users and should be returned to them, despite the insolvency. “I am a data creditor — just like the financial creditors,” he says. “There are outstanding obligations to me.”

I think this argument is nonsense, but the idea that data subjects own their data is a popular myth (revived with enthusiasm by the introduction of the GDPR). The problem / advantage with personal data is that it can be easily and quickly replicated; I can take a copy of your data without your permission, but unlike a conventional theft, you still have it. You can get access to the data I hold about you under a SAR or portability, but once again, I give you a copy and keep my version. Only in limited circumstances can you request that I delete it, and there are many exceptions.

Admittedly, GDPR gives the subject more control over their data than before, but it doesn’t give them ownership. It’s misleading to suggest that a data controller doesn’t really own personal data when there are so many circumstances where they can obtain, disclose, retain or destroy it without the permission of the subject, and when the opportunities for the subject to object are so limited. I don’t think Carroll understands this, but it would be interesting to see his ‘creditor’ notion tested.

Teasing this out might have been a justification for the ICO to enforce on SCL, except for the obvious fact that these issues would never be raised by doing so. If SCL hadn’t pleaded guilty, the question for the court would be whether SCL breached the notice and nothing else. Because SCL made no attempt to comply with or appeal the notice, they never had much to argue about. The enforcement notice was remarkably misguided considering ICO actually holds the data, but it is a tribute to SCL’s ineptitude that they didn’t choose to highlight this by appealing.

According to Carroll, the fight goes on with other cases, so his beef with SCL / Cambridge Analytica might one day result in something interesting, but there’s nothing here. I don’t believe that the ICO has any business enforcing Data Protection on behalf of Americans when they’re so lackadaisical about doing so on behalf of people in the UK, and so this case is an almost offensive waste of resources. But even if you disagree, all they’ve achieved here is given the corpse of SCL a good kicking, with a result that doesn’t tell us anything about the future or very much about the past.