Personal data: it’s all in the name

A person’s name constitutes his or her personal data – so has held the Upper Tribunal recently in Information Commissioner v Financial Services Authority & Edem [2012] UKUT 464 (AAC).

Section 1(1) of the Data Protection Act 1998 (“the DPA”) defines “personal data” thus:

“‘personal data’ means data which relate to a living individual who can be identified—

(a) from those data, or

(b) from those data and other information which is in the possession of, or is likely to come into the possession of, the data controller,

and includes any expression of opinion about the individual and any indication of the intentions of the data controller or any other person in respect of the individual; …”

Mr Edem made a request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (“FOIA”) to the Financial Services Authority (“the FSA”) seeking “a copy of all information that the FSA holds about me and/or my complaint that the FSA had failed to correctly regulate Egg plc”. The FSA declined to provide the information on various grounds. Mr Edem complained to the Information Commissioner. By the time that the Commissioner issued his Decision Notice the only remaining withheld information was the names of three FSA officials. The Commissioner upheld the FSA’s refusal to disclose this information on the basis that it was personal data of the individuals, they would have had no expectation of their names being released in public and any legitimate interest in disclosure was outweighed by the prejudice to their rights and freedoms (i.e. the information was exempt under FOIA, section 40(2) because disclosure would breach the First Data Protection Principle in Schedule 1 to the DPA).

On Mr Edem’s appeal the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) (“the FTT”) decided that the names of the officials did not constitute their personal data and ordered disclosure. In reaching that conclusion the FTT purported to apply the well-known analysis of the concept of personal data by Auld LJ in Durant v FSA [2003] EWCA Civ 1746, [2011] 1 Info LR 1 at [26-29]. In Durant at [28] Auld LJ identified two notions “that may be of assistance” in considering whether information relates to an person: biographical significance and focus. The FTT found that the disputed information was “not biographical in any significant sense” as it simply concerned transactions in which the individuals were involved. Further, the FTT held that the information did not have the individuals as its focus, but rather the handling of Mr Edem’s complaint.

In the Upper Tribunal Judge Jacobs rejected that analysis and allowed the Commissioner’s and FSA’s appeals against the FTT’s decision.

The Judge identified two relevant elements to the definition of personal data in section 1(1) of the DPA: relation and identification (see at [10]). Durant was a case about relation, not identification (see at [20], [29]). The Judge considered that Auld LJ’s two notions (biographical significance and focus) were not presented as being exhaustive or as defining the concept of personal data (see at [21]) and were limited to “borderline” cases (see at [23]).

Judge Jacobs considered that the ECJ’s decisions in Criminal Proceedings against Bodil Lindqvist (Case C-101/01) [2003] ECR I-6055 and European Commission v Bavarian Lager Co Ltd (Case C-28/08 P) were authority that the names of persons are personal data.

As the names of the officials were held by the FSA, the information was data for the purposes of section 1(1) of the DPA (see at [33]). Although the names were (in this case) not unique, taken together with contextual information such as grades and dates of employment they identified the officials (see at [36]).  As to the relation element of the definition of personal data, the Judge concluded that the FTT had either: (1) misdirected itself because Auld LJ’s two notions were not relevant in this case as the information requested included not just the names but other personal data including the individuals’ role within the FSA and their involvement in Mr Edem’s complaint (see at [38]); or (2) misapplied Auld LJ’s two notions. There were two ways in which such misapplication occurred. First, the FTT adopted an approach to biographical significance that was too narrow and was inconsistent with the ECJ’s decision in Bavarian Lager (see at [40]). Secondly, the holder of information has to know whether or not information is personal data at the time it is recorded and on the test adopted by the FTT information would not be biographical because its significance was not known at the time of recording (see at [41]).

Having concluded that the information was personal data Judge Jacobs set aside the FTT’s decision and re-made the decision, finding (in agreement with the Commissioner’s Decision Notice) that condition 6 of Schedule 2 to the DPA was not satisfied as no legitimate interest in disclosure had been identified.

The Upper Tribunal’s conclusion in relation to the misapplication of Auld LJ’s two notions is plainly correct – the FTT’s approach does seem to have been significantly narrower than that approved by the ECJ in Bavarian Lager. Judge Jacobs’ second point in relation to misapplication is interesting. If biographical significance is interpreted in such a way that it is dependent on subjective or context-dependent judgment, then the task of a data controller would, indeed, be rendered very difficult as information slipped into and out of being personal data.

It should be noted that both in this case and Bavarian Lager there was some additional context in which the names appeared that gave them biographical significance – the case should not be read as saying that a name on its own (devoid of context) is necessarily personal data.

The Judge’s reasoning on the FTT’s misdirection at [38] is potentially more controversial. Whilst Auld LJ clearly intended his “two notions” to be non-exhaustive, it is open to question whether the judgments in Durant can really be read as intending to limit them only to borderline cases. However, that is the stance that the Information Commissioner and the Government have traditionally taken in interpreting Durant and Judge Jacobs has accepted it.