December 2nd, 2010 by Robin Hopkins

Shepard v IC and West Sussex County Council (GIA/1681/2010) involved the Commissioner upholding the appellant’s complaint against the local authority, and issuing a decision notice in his favour. That notice required the authority to search for specified information and to provide it to the Claimant if found. The authority informed the appellant that its search had been fruitless. Apparently therefore, it had complied with the decision notice, but the appellant received no information.

At first instance, his appeal failed, partly on the grounds of the well-established principle that a successful party should not be permitted to bring an appeal. The Upper Tribunal disagreed, and granted permission to appeal, observing that the aforementioned principle “surely relates to judicial decisions by courts and tribunals; it does not necessarily apply to decisions by administrative first-instance decision-makers or independent office-holders”.

Nor was the wording of FOIA itself a barrier to such appeals: section 57(1) expressly confers a right of appeal on both parties, and not simply “the losing party”. Furthermore, both the steps prescribed in a decision notice and the timing of such steps are matters of discretion for the Commissioner. Unlike the enforcement of a decision notice, such questions of discretion are within the Tribunal’s jurisdiction.

It is not clear, however, whether a challenge to a first-instance Tribunal’s refusal to entertain an appeal lies by way of an appeal to the Upper Tribunal or by way of judicial review. A test case (combined references of CH/1758/2009 and JR/2204/2009) will determine this question shortly. In the present case, the Upper Tribunal therefore granted permission to apply for judicial review as a precaution.



November 24th, 2010 by Robin Hopkins

Up to now, the Commissioner has not exercised his powers under sections 55A-E of the Data Protection Act 1998 to impose monetary penalties on data controllers for breaches of the Act. Today, he imposed his first two financial penalties.

Hertfordshire County Council has been handed a penalty of £100,000 for twice sending faxes containing sensitive personal data to members of the public in error. The first fax, which is the subject of an injunction preventing further details being disclosed, was intended for a barrister but sent to a member of the public. The second fax, which concerned child protection matters, was intended for a County Court. The errors both occurred in June 2010, and were both reported to the Commissioner by the Council itself.

Secondly, the employment services company A4e has been fined £60,000 after an unencrypted laptop containing personal details of 24,000 users of community law centres was stolen from an employee’s home. This too was reported to the Commissioner by A4e itself.



November 22nd, 2010 by Robin Hopkins

I reported in a recent post that the Information Commissioner had instructed Google to sign an undertaking aimed at any repeat of the breaches of the Data Protection Act 1998 committed during Google’s information-gathering for its Street View feature. That undetaking has now been signed, and a copy can be viewed here. It requires Google engineers to maintain a “privacy design document” for each new Google project prior to launch. It provides for further training and data protection awareness for Google engineers and other employees. The undertaking also assures the deletion of all personal data which had been gathered unlawfully, and provides for the Commissioner to audit Google’s revamped data protection procedures nine months from now. Interestingly, the undertaking applies to Google’s global activities and not just its UK ones.

The ICO has come under fire for being soft on Google. The Commissioner, Christopher Graham, has defended his stance, including in an interview with the Daily Telegraph which can be found here. In that interview, the Commissioner remarks that “a lot of people out there want somebody – probably not me – to be the privacy tsar. But that’s not what the Information Commissioner is”. Recent indications suggest, however, that the ICO could potentially take on a “privacy tsar” role – see the recommendations from its recent surveillance report, summarised here.



November 15th, 2010 by Robin Hopkins

The Information Commissioner has delivered his latest report to the Home Affairs Select Committee on “the state of surveillance” in the UK. The report traces privacy-related developments since the Commissioner’s 2006 report on the same theme, which memorably observed that the UK may be “sleepwalking into a surveillance society”. According to the November 2010 report, that warning

 “… is no less cogent in 2010 than it was several years ago. It is not being suggested that the UK is a ‘police state’ or that there are surveillance conspiracies afoot against the public. Neither the 2006 report nor this one supports such an assumption, and evidence for it is lacking. Much of what is taken to be surveillance is done for benign reasons and has beneficial effects on individuals and society. But much surveillance also goes beyond the limits of what is tolerable in a society based on the rule of law and human rights, one of which is the right to privacy.”

The report provides an illuminating summary of trends in (amongst others) the use of CCTV, body scanning and border control (including ‘ethnic targeting’ for security searches), workplace monitoring, social networking, ‘crowdsourcing’, the monitoring of protest activities and even the use of unmanned drones. Scrutiny is also given to a number of governmental policy tools, such as databases and the use of ‘social sorting’ (eg into groups such as ‘high cost, high risk’ social groups who are vulnerable to social exclusion’) to develop targeted welfare strategies.

As regards private-sector online commerce, the Commissioner recommends a number of measures to correct what he describes as the “worrying trend particularly with those who provide on-line services not to have thought through the privacy implications of their activities and given users robust privacy settings as a default”.

What to do about the risks identified in the report? The ICO’s recommendations focus principally on overhauling the legislative process insofar as it affects privacy, by introducing: 

  • a requirement for a privacy impact assessment to be presented during the parliamentary process where legislative measures have a particular impact on privacy;
  • an opportunity for the Information Commissioner to provide a reasoned opinion to Parliament on measures that engage concerns within his areas of competence, and
  • a legal requirement to make sure all new laws that engage significant privacy concerns undergo post-legislative scrutiny to ensure they are being implemented and used as intended by Parliament.

If implemented, these measures would add substantially to the ICO’s clout as the guardian of privacy.

The report can be found here, with the accompanying press release from the ICO here.



November 3rd, 2010 by Robin Hopkins

Google used cars equipped with cameras to gather material for its much-publicised Street View feature. The material was not confined to photographs, but also included data by which wi-fi hotspots could be located. Earlier in 2010, the ICO investigated this ‘payload data’. It concluded that the information it had inspected was not personal data, in that it could not be linked to identifiable individuals. The ICO stated, however, that it would continue to work with its international counterparts, such as the Canadian authorities, in investigating Google. This co-operation has now shown the payload data to include URLs, passwords and email details.


The ICO today announced that:


“The Commissioner has concluded that there was a significant breach of the Data Protection Act when Google Street View cars collected payload data as part of their wi-fi mapping exercise in the UK. He has instructed Google UK to sign an undertaking in which the company commits to take action to ensure that breaches of this kind cannot happen again. An audit of Google UK’s Data Protection practices will also be undertaken. The Commissioner has rejected calls for a monetary penalty to be imposed but is well placed to take further regulatory action if the undertaking is not fully complied with”.


This follows the ICO’s press release on Monday, in which it commented that:


“It is also important to note that none of the regulators currently investigating Google Street View have taken direct enforcement action at this stage, with the US investigation led by the US Federal Trade Commission for example ruling out direct action, although mirroring our own concern that this data was allowed to be collected by an organisation who showed such disregard for international data protection legislation. This week the Metropolitan Police have also closed their case believing it would not be appropriate to pursue a criminal case against Google under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). Whilst we continue to work with our other international counterparts on this issue we will not be panicked into a knee jerk response to an alarmist agenda.”


The latter press release also explained the ICO is “keen to discuss with MPs and Ministers how we can further defend privacy on the internet as technologies and applications develop”. In this regard, the Guardian reports today that culture minister Ed Vaizey is proposing a new internet code of conduct and a mediation mechanism to resolve complaints by individuals against data controllers. He is reportedly meeting with the ICO today to discuss these matters. Watch this space.




October 1st, 2010 by Robin Hopkins

The Information Commissioner’s Enforcement Team has begun cracking down on public authorities that habitually fail to respond to requests for information within the statutory limits. This morning, it began publishing a list – to be updated quarterly – of authorities whose timeliness will now be subject to specific monitoring by the ICO.


 Those on the list have either (i) been the subject of six or more complaints of delay in the last six months, (ii) exceeded the time limit by a significant margin on at least one occasion, or (iii) appear to respond in time to fewer than 85% of requests.


There are 33 authorities on the first monitoring list.


For the ICO’s statement, click here. For the debut monitoring list, click here.