Regulating the FOIA into obscurity?

This is a guest post from the redoubtable John Slater, whose tireless efforts to hold DWP to account are a lesson in how FOI should be used. John has had real success in wrestling information out of a stubborn and secretive system, but the post describes the hurdles in the way of the applicant, and the shameful way in which the ICO makes things worse. It’s not a quick read but there’s a lot to say. I think anyone with an interest in how the benefits system operates, or how healthy the FOI system is at the moment should give it the time it deserves. I’m very grateful to John for writing it and letting me host it.

I suspect that most people reading this have experience of submitting a request for information (“RFI”) under the FOIA and all the frustrations that can come with it. Some people may have complained to the office of the Information Commissioner (“ICO”) while others may have just given up when their RFI was refused. I suspect that a smaller number of people, who had the time, appealed ICO decisions to the First-Tier and Upper Tribunals.

Via my involvement with the FOIA I have been dealing with the ICO for approximately 6 years. My interaction has ranged from normal FOIA complaints through to appeals to the First-Tier and Upper Tribunals.

Setting aside the minor issues one typically experiences with any large organization I have to say that my experience of dealing with the ICO has been very positive. Even when a decision notice (“DN”) went against me I could understand why and how that decision was reached. In respect of appeals to the First-Tier and Upper Tribunals I have nothing but praise for the people involved, even when I was appealing an ICO decision.

However, approximately 18 months ago things started to change for the worse. The time taken to respond to complaints seems to be inexorably increasing and the quality of the case work is deteriorating. I’ll use 3 of my current complaints to illustrate the problems that I and others are experiencing on a regular basis.

Case 1 – Universal Credit Programme Board Information Packs

In July 2017 I asked the DWP for the 3 most recent packs of information that were given to the Universal Credit (“UC”) Programme Board members at each monthly meeting. Given how controversial UC is and the history of the DWP being less than honest about it, this seemed to be a good route to try to find out what the senior people responsible for UC actually know and what they are doing about it.

For those not familiar with programme management terminology the programme board consists of senior people who are accountable and responsible for the UC programme, defining the direction of the programme and establishing frameworks to achieve its objectives. So apart from Neil Couling (senior responsible owner) and the secretary of state they are about as senior as it gets. The membership of the programme board can be found here:

https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/419990/response/1090823/attach/html/2/3044%20IR%20516%20IR%20604%20reply.pdf.html

Unsurprisingly the DWP refused my RFI on 16 August 2017 citing S.36. However it explained that it needed an extension to carry out the public interest test (“PIT”). On 14 September 2017 the DWP did exactly the same thing. This is a tactic that the DWP uses regularly and often issues monthly PIT extensions until the ICO becomes involved.

I complained to the ICO on 14 September 2017. On 22 November a DN was issued giving the DWP 35 calendar days to issue its response. On 3 January 2018 the DWP finally confirmed that it was engaging S.36 and that the public interest did not favour disclosure (I’ve yet to see a public interest test from the DWP that does favour disclosure). I submitted a revised complaint to the ICO on 9 January 2018 challenging S.36 and the public interest decision.

Despite the 5 month delay by the DWP the ICO bizarrely told me that I still had to exhaust the DWP internal review procedure before my complaint could be investigated. I had submitted 4 internal review requests (“IRR”) during the 5 months that the DWP treated the FOIA with such contempt. I know from previous experience that the DWP would use the same PIT ‘trick’ to delay answering my IRR. I explained this to the ICO and asserted that it has the authority to proceed without me having to submit another IRR. On 30 January the ICO accepted my complaint. I know about this from experience but I assume most people would have followed the ICO instruction and been stuck in another loop of 5 months until the DWP was told to issue its response to the IRR.

On 26 April my case was assigned to a case officer, just 3 months short of a year since I submitted my request to the DWP. Despite the DWP clearly citing S.36 the ICO allowed the DWP to get away with numerous delaying tactics and nothing happened for many months. Despite chasing the ICO on a number of occasions there appeared to be no progress. My patience ran out in October 2018 and I complained to the ICO about this and two other cases. On the face of it this appeared to have got things moving.

However, on 18 October 2018 I was told by the ICO that an information notice had been served on the DWP to obtain copies of the information I had requested. The DWP has 30 days to respond to these notices.

Whilst I’m not surprised by this (in fact I even suggested this was the case in my complaint) I struggle to understand how any organisation can investigate a complaint for almost 6 months without having a copy of the requested information. I can only hope that the DN I have been seeking for so long will appear at some point in 2018!

The delay has been so long that I have actually submitted another request for more current programme board packs. At the time of writing the DWP hasn’t provided a response within 20 days so that’s another complaint that I need to send to the ICO!

Case 2 – Aggregation of various RFIs

Between 4 February and 23 April 2018 the DWP aggregated 9 of my requests for information claiming that they were for the “same or similar” information. Well, what it actually said was:

We consider each of the seven requests to be of a similar nature as they all relate to either decision making or performance delivery of disability assessments on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions.  In particular, all of the requests would be allocated to the same team for response as it falls within their specialised area. 

Under Section 12 of the FOI Act the Department is not therefore obliged to comply with your request and we will not be processing it further.

This seems to suggest that the DWP believes the requested information is the same or similar because they relate to activities it carries out and the teams that do them. This is a crude attempt to rely on the discredited concept of ‘overarching themes’ that was attempted in Benson v IC and the Governing Body of Buckinghamshire New University (EA20110016).  At [29] the Tribunal stated:

Whilst the Tribunal understood the Commissioner’s analysis the Tribunal felt that it was not compelling and relied on concepts that were not actually within the legislation – e.g. ‘overarching theme’. The Tribunal felt that any consequent uncertainty should, on balance, be resolved in the Appellant’s favour.

On 30 March I submitted a complaint to the ICO. My complaint involves 9 requests and deals with an important area of the FOIA, where there is very little precedent. A reasonable person might conclude that the ICO would be keen to act swiftly. On 27 April 2018 my complaint was assigned to a case officer so things were looking good. It is now coming towards the end of October and I have not had a single piece of correspondence from the ICO.

The requests that have been aggregated cover management information about how the DWP runs large controversial contracts that assess the eligibility for employment support allowance and personal independence payment (“PIP”). A previous RFI uncovered numerous problems with the quality of medical reports being produced for PIP assessments. This might explain why the DWP is so keen not to let me have the current information but not why there has been no progress by the ICO.

Case 3 – Datasets & Type of Data Held for Various Benefits About Claimants

On 26 February 2018 I asked the DWP to disclose the datasets and type of data it holds about various social security benefits. I am not asking for the actual data just the type of data and the “groups” or “sets” of data that it holds.

On 17 April 2018 the DWP refused my request citing S.31 (it eventually confirmed it meant section 31(1)(a))  and  S.24. After a further IRR the DWP reconfirmed its position and I complained to the ICO on 15 July. Some 3 months later on 11 October I was finally told that my case had been assigned to a case officer. Does this now mean I wait for a further 6 months before anything actually happens?

Conclusion

I know the ICO is very busy, partially due to the new Data Protection legislation, but the problems that I and others are experiencing can’t just be explained by “being busy”. Based on my previous experience of dealing with them I also don’t believe it is the fault of the case officers. These problems are due to serious organisational failings within the ICO. There doesn’t seem to be the type of business processes / workflow that one would expect to see in an organisation of this size. The line management oversight of case officers appears to be absent. Based on my own experience it seems to be that the line managers focus solely on protecting case officers while actually making matters worse for them as their workloads probably grow faster than they can cope with.

The ICO should have a small set of metrics about how it is dealing with cases. Surely line managers should be looking at cases where nothing has actually happened for 6 months and do something about it? The idea of management by exception has been around for a long time and yet I’m left with the impression that there are no exceptions set within the ICO and senior management have no impartial way of knowing what is actually going on at the case level.

People might wonder why this matters and that in these times of constrained budgets we should expect cases to take longer. I can’t accept this as one of the key drivers for the FOIA is that we get a chance to hold public authorities to account for their actions. For that to happen we need access to information while it is still relatively current.

It is generally known that there are certain large government departments that have very poor history in respect of FOIA. If someone requests information that these departments suspect will be embarrassing they will deliberately play the system to delay disclosure. From personal experience it’s all far too easy to do:

  1. Ignore the request completely until the ICO tells the department to respond (3+ months).
  2. Use the public interest test with impunity to introduce a 5 to 6 month delay before the requester can complain to the ICO about the exemption cited.
  3. 3 months before a case officer is assigned.
  4. At least 3 to 6 months before a DN is issued.

Total possible delay = 14 to 18 months.

The department can then appeal the DN to the First-Tier Tribunal (“FTT”), even if there is little chance of success. I’ve had 2 cases recently that have been appealed and then withdrawn just before the FTT hearing was due to take place. This added another 6 month delay let alone the cost to the public purse. If the DWP had actually gone through with the appeals and lost then that delay would probably be closer to 9 to 12 months.

This means that “playing the system” allows disreputable government departments to delay disclosure of embarrassing information by at least 2 years. Any media interest in the information can then be met with the claim that it is now ‘historical’ and things are better now.

A good example of this is the Project Assessment Review Reports (“PARs”) for the Universal Credit programme. I asked the DWP for these in April 2016 (see URL below):

https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/universal_credit_programme_proje#comment-82746

Using the delaying tactics described above and making the ICO issue an information notice to compel the DWP to release the PARs to them, they weren’t disclosed until March 2018. That’s a 2 year delay.

The ICO needs to sort out the internal delays that these government departments seem to be relying on. They also need to make sure there are meaningful consequences for public authorities that “play the system”. Writing strongly worded DNs telling public authorities off for abusing the system is meaningless. The ICO was highly critical of the DWP in its DN for the PARs case. A link to the DN is given below and the criticisms start at [62].

https://ico.org.uk/media/action-weve-taken/decision-notices/2017/2014762/fs50640285.pdf

The criticism has had absolutely no impact on the DWP.  It still regularly doesn’t reply in time and still produces “boilerplate” responses that have little bearing on the case in question.

As a result of the new GDPR and Facebook the Information Commissioner regularly seems to be in the media and was recently named as the most influential person in data-driven business in the updated DataIQ 100 list. I hear talk of the Commissioner being able to issue huge fines for data breaches and serving enforcement notices on organisations that are not complying with the FOIA.

The original white paper “your right to know” stated at [1.1]:

Unnecessary secrecy in Government leads to arrogance in government and defective decision-making. The perception of excess secrecy has become a corrosive influence in the decline of public confidence. Moreover, the climate of public opinion has changed; people expect much greater openness and accountability from government than they used to.”

If public authorities continue to be allowed to easily introduce delays of 2 years before disclosure then the regulator of the FOIA is failing in her role.  Before the FOIA we only had the thirty-year rule (now moving to the twenty-year rule) controlling when information was released to the public.

I suggest that we are rapidly approaching the situation where by default we have the “two-year rule” for information government departments do not want released. Unless the Commissioner does something about it that will slowly increase to the “three-year rule” and then the “four-year rule”. From my perspective its time the Commissioner stopped boasting about all the powers she has and started using them.

We need to talk about Ardi

This week, Private Eye reported that the publishers Kogan Page had withdraw a book about the GDPR by Ardi Kolah, after they received allegations of plagiarism from several sources. Most references to the GDPR Handbook have been scrubbed from Kolah’s online history and Kogan Page’s website is terse, to say the least. The fate of Kolah’s book is interesting not only because the high profile author is involved in both Henley Business School’s GDPR course and the British Computer Society’s Data Protection Certificate, but because Kolah has repeatedly sought to build his reputation through an association with the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham.

The ‘About the Author’ section of his book describes Kolah as having “worked closely” with Denham, and there is some substance to the claim. Not only did Denham write the foreword for the book (and also for Kolah’s luxury leather-bound edition of the GDPR), she invited him to be one of the judges of her inaugural Data Protection Officer award.

Denham’s foreword describes him admiringly as a veteran of the Data Protection sector. She describes the UK’s data protection community before her arrival from Canada as a “small group of people ready to help each other out to raise standards“. She claims Kolah was someone who “flew the flag for data protection many years before it broke into the mainstream with the GDPR“. After some flannel, she returns to the theme: “Ardi and others of his generation often walked a rather lonely path in their efforts to have data protection taken seriously by the mainstream” and praises the book as “authoritative“.

I made an FOI request to the ICO asking if she wrote the foreword because I had a sneaking suspicion that Kolah himself might have been the author. The response was emphatic: “The Commissioner wrote the foreword and was the author of the Word document that was sent to Mr Kolah with the foreword in it. Mr Kolah had no input in the content of the foreword, did not ask for any input and did not ask for any copy approval of the foreword. The version sent to him on 6th April represented the Commissioner’s final wording to appear in the book unedited and unabridged.” This means that Denham is entirely responsible for the claims about Ardi Kolah’s career in Data Protection that appear in the foreword, and I think that’s a problem.

For most of his career, Kolah has been a PR guy. He worked as head of communications or PR for a variety of different organisations between 1995 and (at least) 2012. He worked for the BBC up until 1995, but after that, he did PR for Arthur Andersen, Cancer Research and Logica among others. His own CV on LinkedIn shows him as ‘Global Head of Public Relations’ for Brit Insurance until 2012. The notion that Kolah was flying the flag for Data Protection for “many years” and he was part of a generation of people who worked thanklessly in the DP mines is plainly unsustainable. Even now, his Twitter account describes him as a “Commentator on all things sales and marketing and social media“. Kolah’s own timeline doesn’t mention Data Protection until 2012, when he says founded a company called Go DPO, and even so, it’s hard to square his version with other available information.

An experienced training consultant called Darren Verrian is also on LinkedIn, and he  says that he started work on Go DPO in May 2015, three years after Kolah. This is interesting because Verrian describes himself as ‘co-founder’ of the business. Furthermore, Companies House shows that on 2nd June 2015, Kolah and Verrian registered two companies, one called Go DPO EU Recruitment (which was dissolved in February 2018), and another called Go DPO EU Compliance (which is still trading). Subsequently, they registered Go DPO EU Advisory Services in February 2016 (dissolved in March 2018), and finally Go DPO EU Consultancy Services in August 2017 (also still trading). Weirdly, despite his claim that he was running Go DPO in 2012, a company called Genworth Financial announced on 28th May 2012 that they had hired Kolah as their Director of Communications. Kolah doesn’t mention Genworth Financial anywhere on his LinkedIn CV.

I think it’s impossible to reconcile Denham’s claims about Kolah’s longstanding involvement in Data Protection with his own CV, but the contradiction between Kolah and Verrian’s respective claims and the facts on Companies House make it worse. As far as I can see, Ardi Kolah is not a Data Protection veteran: he’s just good at PR. Since I started to make mischief at his expense, several people have approached me with stories of Kolah’s error-strewn, self-promoting performances at conferences, and his now-disgraced book is an bloated mix of turgid management-speak and basic errors.

I didn’t identify the examples of apparent plagiarism or report them to Kogan Page, but I have seen them and it’s obvious to me why the publishers withdrew the book. I think Kolah owes everyone who bought the book an apology, and Kogan Page owes them a refund (I’m aware that they did offer a refund to at least one purchaser on the proviso that he returned the book). Perhaps Kolah did Data Protection work before May 2015 but I can’t find it. Maybe he can reconcile his and Verrian’s accounts and explain why no variant of a company called Go DPO was registered in 2012. But even if 2012 really is when he started, the way Denham characterises him in her foreword is at best wildly exaggerated, and a slap in the face for those of us who really have been working on UK data protection for a long time.

Moreover, unless he can refute the plagiarism allegations (and having seen what they’re based on, it would require a lot more than spin to achieve that), I think Kolah should resign from three of his current roles. There is no way that someone guilty of plagiarism should have a role on an exam board, at a prestigious business school or as Editor-in-Chief of a widely published journal. If he does not, then the BCS, Henley Business School and the editorial board of Journal of Data Protection and Privacy (many of whom are quoted in the book endorsing it) should sack him. They cannot be seen to tolerate plagiarism. Whether his friends at Amplified Business Content (who organise many of the conferences that Kolah speaks at) or Hitachi (who employ him as a part-time DPO) still think he’s an appropriate person to work with is none of my business.

A more important question than the fate of Mr Kolah is what this mess says about Elizabeth Denham. Kolah trades on his ‘close working relationship‘ with the Commissioner. Denham should have shut down this inappropriate use of her name, but instead, she promoted both Kolah’s book and the man himself by asking him to be a judge of the DPO award. When I made an FOI request to the ICO about Denham’s relationship with Kolah, they were in denial, refusing to accept that writing a foreword was an endorsement:

it may be helpful to note that we do not consider that writing a foreword in an official capacity to be an endorsement or to be otherwise advertising a commercial product. A decision to write a foreword or review is normally taken on the basis of the ICO being aware of the author’s standing as a practitioner or expert, and the value the book adds to the information rights community

ICO comments received by Private Eye suggest that while Denham definitely wrote the foreword, she may not have even read the book. Kolah sent it to her, but the ICO said she did not study the book, relying instead on her ‘prior confidence‘ in the author. Along with several other people, I have asked the ICO to show what evidence Denham relied on to make her assertions about Kolah’s long history in UK data protection. They admit that no such information is held. Denham made assertions to support her friend and help sell his book, and I don’t think she can substantiate them.

The Information Commissioner should not endorse commercial products, and this isn’t the first time she’s been willing to lend her authority when doing so. Kolah’s book has turned out to be damaged goods, but if she’d had the sense not to endorse anything, she wouldn’t have this problem. What this says about Denham’s judgement isn’t pretty, and I think it’s untenable for her to stay silent on the matter. Rather than throwing spokespersons under the bus, Denham should explain it herself. What due diligence did she do on Kolah? Did anyone even Google him? Why does she think he’s got a long and distinguished career in Data Protection when he hasn’t? And most of all, how can she assure us that she’s independent when she can be persuaded to make a mistake as big as this?

 

Live and Let Dai

To say that anything connected with GDPR is the worst example of its kind is a foolhardy business. I’ve read so many terrible articles, LinkedIn posts and Tweets about GDPR, to single any one of them out and say ‘THIS ONE IS THE WORST’ seems pointless. Most of them are bad. However, after watching 33 minutes of waffle, padding and gleefully misinformed bullshit, I am reckless enough to say that the intellectual property lawyer Dai Davis’ talk here is the worst presentation or talk I have seen about the GDPR in any format.

Admittedly, the trainer in me hated it because of the incompetence – Davis has to keep going back to the podium to change slides because he hasn’t brought a remote, and he pads the talk out with protracted questions to the audience that don’t add anything to what he is saying. When someone intelligent-sounding in the audience takes him on by asking a proper question, he runs a mile.

More seriously, a good chunk of the talk is taken up with an attempt to create a formula for how much you should spend on data protection compliance based on the likelihood of being fined. It’s an eye-catching and controversial thing to throw out in a conference, but I don’t believe even Davis knows what point he’s making. Is he really saying that a every organisation should spend a meaningless, averaged-out €2000 to comply with GDPR, or is that just a flourish? Every organisation is different to another, and will have radically different priorities and appetites for risk, so trying to create a standardised methodology is so random and unhelpful, I don’t think it’s a serious point.  Given the number of basic mistakes and baseless assertions he makes in such a short time, however, the only thing I can add to his calculations is that however much you spend on GDPR, you should probably not spend it on advice from him.

I may not have got them all, but here is as full a collection of all the blunders as I could manage:

  • Davis cannot remember how many deputies the Commissioner has, but he knows that it’s between 11 and 13. There are 3 deputies (James Dipple-Johnstone, Paul Arnold and Steve Wood); there have never been more than 3.
  • Davis consistently gets the name of the ICO wrong – it’s almost always the ‘Information Commission Office’, although he varies it at least once with ‘Information Commission Data Protection Officer’ (he wasn’t talking about their DPO). To be charitable, it might be because he’s talking quickly, but the errors are relentless. He clearly thinks that Elizabeth Denham’s job title is ‘ICO’. because he calls her this repeatedly, and talks about what he would do if he was “the ICO“.
  • He asserts that the GDPR is not a ‘step change’ from the old legislation solely because it has lots of words, even though many of those words are very similar to words in the same order in the old version
  • He notes that there has not been a GDPR fine yet. Davis was speaking on May 30th, two days after the first 72 hours to *report* a relevant breach would have elapsed.
  • He asserts several times that in theory “every single breach” has to be reported to the ICO. This is completely false. There is a specific definition of a breach in the GDPR and incidents that do not meet a certain threshold of risk do not have to be reported.
  • He says that telecoms companies had to report breaches to the ICO since 2012. Communications providers have had this duty since 2011, not just telecoms companies.
  • Davis claims that public sector bodies self-report breaches to the ICO because they have no idea about how to take a commercial risk. There is the problem that public sector bodies are not commercial organisations by and large, so that argument makes no sense, but it’s also factually incorrect. To take one example, NHS bodies (the example shouted out by an audience member) have been obliged by the operation of the Information Governance Toolkit to report breaches to the ICO since at least 1st June 2013 (I think it was actually earlier than this, but that’s the one given in a Toolkit document that Davis could have found with a single Google search if facts were something he had any curiosity about).
  • Davis claims that the ICO is not really responsible for prosecutions for S55 offences, despite talking exclusively about prosecutions that the ICO carried out.
  • He includes the prosecutions in his calculations for the risk of being fined by the ICO, seemingly unaware that fines and prosecutions are two entirely distinct activities, with S55 prosecutions being against individuals rather than organisations. Throughout, Davis talks about the ICO enforcing on ‘people’, so I don’t know if he knows that the penalties were issued against data controllers.
  • He says that there were 18000 complaints in 2016 and the ICO has done nothing about nearly all of them. As someone who thinks the ICO is crap, even I have to acknowledge that most of these complaints were resolved informally and the absence of a fine does not mean that nothing happened. In quite a few cases, the complaint would not have been valid, and so no action would be appropriate.
  • He twice says that the maximum penalty for a breach under the DPA 1998 was £5,000,000; it was £500,000.
  • He quotes the head of the ICO’s ‘Breach Notification Division’, which does not exist.
  • He claims that the GDPR contains more loopholes that requires the ICO to hire criminal lawyers. The standard of evidence for a GDPR breach is balance of probabilities, and GDPR removes the requirement to prove damage or distress for a monetary penalty.
  • He says the ICO has 700 staff – they haven’t recruited these staff yet.
  • He tells a story of how he tells his hotel clients (who, if they exist, have my pity) that they cannot claim to be GDPR compliant because they use “mobile telephones” and allow their staff to send text messages. According to Davis, it is impossible to use mobile phones securely.

At the point where Davis says “smart lawyers like me“, my jaw did not drop, it fell off.

Leaving aside how garbled and smug Davis’ performance is, you might wish to charitable and take on his central thesis – that you probably won’t get a GDPR fine. He’s right. There have been relatively few penalties under Data Protection thus far and so the risk of getting one is relatively small. I cannot disagree with this banal point because I have made it myself any times. However, I can’t tell if his conclusion is simply that nobody should bother complying or whether there would have been a ‘however, you should comply because…’ moment, because there isn’t a conclusion. Presumably because he has run out of time, Davis just stops. So what, Dai? What’s your point? What should the audience do with this information? Should they just ignore GDPR?  There’s definitely a sense of this when he says that 10 years from now, the owner of a B&B will not know what GDPR is.

If Davis had the guts or the discipline to get to a conclusion that GDPR doesn’t matter, that would have been something. His contempt for detail would still be an impediment, but ‘Ignore GDPR’ is an assertion worth tackling. I could counter by arguing that the threat of a fine isn’t a good reason to comply, but respecting human dignity and avoiding harm to real people though inaccuracy, intrusion and insecurity is, but Davis never stops circling the airport, so I don’t even know if that’s what he’s saying.

If his contention that organisations don’t have the ability to measure risk effectively and need to get GDPR in perspective, that’s actually a good point, but he makes it so incompetently that again I’m not motivated to take him on. I have grudging sympathy for the idea that reputational damage is an overhyped risk (again, it’s not a point he makes clearly), but I know that many in the Data Protection world would passionately disagree, and I suspect that they could use Facebook’s current woes as evidence that public perception over data misuse isn’t something that boardrooms can ignore.

In the end, I think Davis is a clever man pontificating about a subject he neither cares for or understands, but the danger is that people will watch the talk and be contaminated by it. You could argue that I am making it worse by drawing attention to it solely so I can take the piss. All I can say is, the talk is out there. People will see it. As this is the case, if you find his argument (such as it is) attractive, it’s worth pointing out how sloppy and ill-informed his thinking is. It’s worth asking if this is the ‘Ignore GDPR’ guy, why would you listen to him?

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.

 

The Naked Truth

The story of Damian Green’s porn-clogged computer has several facets, with a surprising number of them related to data protection. Whether it was a breach for former Deputy Commissioner Bob Quick to reveal that there was porn on the computer is hard to say for certain – I think Quick has a journalistic defence in revealing hypocrisy given that the Government is current waging a moralistic war on adult websites, but you are welcome to disagree. The fact that Quick has form for revealing information that he shouldn’t have only adds spice to the mix.

The question of why Green’s other accuser Neil Lewis still has his police notebooks raises more serious questions. Did he keep them without authorisation from the Met? If he did, this could be a criminal offence under Data Protection’s Section 55 for which Lewis would be liable. Did the Met Police fail to recover them properly? This would be a serious breach of the seventh data protection principle, for which the Met should expect to answer. In any case, I have to agree with those who say that public servants should respect confidences even after they leave the service. Sensitive material should never be retained by former officers of any organisation. I know my reaction to the story is clouded by the entertaining spectacle of seeing a politician caught with his pants down, or at least, unzipped. The question of how the story came to light needs to be interrogated.

Green’s use of the Shaggy Defence to claim that he knows nothing about the porn begs more questions. If he didn’t download it, this means that someone else did (none of the Tories defending him seem to claim that it doesn’t exist). Part of Green’s outrage when his office was raided in 2008 was the threat to the sanctity of Parliamentary Privilege and the confidentiality due to his constituents. In the light of this, Green needs to explain how it was possible for someone else to download porn onto his computer. The best case scenario for him is that this was the result of malware, rather than someone else being able to log into his computer without his knowledge. Of course, malware infecting an MP’s computer is a story in itself. Regardless of whether this story should be in the public domain, we can’t be expected to ignore it now. As someone who processes highly sensitive data about his constituents (as well as possibly other sensitive information), at some point Green has to explain who had access to his computer and what they were doing downloading porn. Or he has to admit that it was him.

I don’t know what, if anything, Green is guilty of, but his fellow Tory Nadine Dorries’ spectacular contribution on Saturday doesn’t allow for any ambiguity. The MP for Mid Bedfordshire has a habit of deleting tweets when she (or someone else running her account) realises how stupid they make her look, so I have screengrabbed this one and I reproduce it in full here:

My staff log onto my computer on my desk with my login everyday. Including interns on exchange programmes. For the officer on @BBCNews just now to claim that the computer on Greens desk was accessed and therefore it was Green is utterly preposterous !!

UPDATE: There’s more:

All my staff have my login details. A frequent shout when I manage to sit at my desk myself is, ‘what is the password?

ANOTHER UPDATE: Robert Syms MP is at it as well

As a constituency MP, Dorries will be handling sensitive correspondence on a wide variety of matters, and she has publicly confirmed that access to information is open to a wide variety of people, including interns on exchange programmes. To this, there is no defence. The seventh data protection principle states that a data controller must have in place appropriate technical and organisational security measures to prevent “unauthorised or unlawful processing of personal data, and against accidental loss of or destruction of or damage to personal data“. This means a mix of technical measures like passwords and encryption and organisational measures like ensuring that passwords are not shared or written down. Dorries has confirmed she has authorised password sharing in her office – which is bad enough in itself because it means passwords are spoken aloud or written down, greatly increasing the chance of the password being known to someone nefarious. But worse than that, she says specifically that a wide group of people share her login. There is no way of knowing who has accessed what, because even if the intern has done it, it looks like Nadine was the person responsible.

The only way that Dorries has not admitted a clear breach of Data Protection’s security principle is if she (or whoever wrote the tweet) is lying in order to defend Green,  which is quite the stupidest thing I can imagine.

There are several possible breaches here – Quick’s original revelations about Green, Lewis’ retention of his notebooks / the Met’s failure to recover them when he left, Green’s insecure computer equipment and Dorries’ admission of her completely lax security. While Quick and Green’s problems are somewhat murky, Lewis / Met Police and Dorries present much more straightforward issues for the Information Commissioner. Both should be investigated as a matter of urgency.

Given Dorries’ casual admission of the insecure way in which her office operates, a much wider investigation might be required. Elizabeth Denham has put huge resources into investigating the possibility of political use of analytics and big data in an unlawful way, even though it’s hard to imagine anything coming of it. On the other hand, here we have a sitting MP openly admitting that constituents’ data is unsafe – how many more of Dorries’ colleagues operate in a similarly unlawful fashion? I cannot complain to the ICO about these matters, as I am not affected by them. However, the issues are serious, and Wilmslow should step in immediately. A bland press release reminding MPs to process data safely is not good enough; the ICO needs to demonstrate that Data Protection law applies to MPs just as it does to the rest of us.