In March the Commissioner executed a warrant under the Data Protection Act 1998, to much fanfare and press coverage, on Cambridge Analytica – the data analytics firm who had been involved in the election campaign by US President Donald Trump and who had allegedly undertaken work for Leave.EU in the 2016 referendum on whether the UL should remain a member of the European Union or not. At the same time the Information commissioner announced a much wider investigation into compliance with data protection and privacy laws in political campaigning.
The Information Commissioner has today published a report giving an update on that wider investigation [pdf]. There has been much fanfare around this report and in particular a suggestion that Facebook has been served with a Monetary Penalty Notice in the amount of £500,000. This would be big news; it may not be a large sum of money to Facebook, but £500,000 is the maximum that the Information commissioner can serve a Monetary Penalty Notice for under the Data Protection Act 1998.
However, it has become clear that Facebook has not been served with a Monetary Penalty Notice in the amount of £500,000. The first thing to note here is that the Data Protection Act 1998 still applies; the alleged breaches of data protection law that the Commissioner is concerned with pre-dated 25 May 2018 and therefore the powers under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) do not apply. What has happened is that the Information Commissioner has served a “Notice of Intent” on Facebook indicating that the Commissioner intends on serving Facebook with a Monetary Penalty Notice in the amount of £500,000. This is the first stage in the process of serving a Monetary Penalty Notice, but it is by no means guaranteed that (a) a Monetary Penalty Notice will be issued; and (b) that it will be in the amount of £500,000.
Facebook will have the opportunity to make written representations to the Information Commissioner on various matters, including whether the statutory tests for serving a Monetary Penalty Notice have been met and on the amount of the Penalty. The Commissioner must take account of these representations when making a final decision on serving the Monetary Penalty Notice: not to do so would likely result in an appeal against the Notice to the First-Tier Tribunal (Information Rights), which could ultimately result in the Monetary Penalty Notice being reduced in amount or quashed altogether. If Facebook brings forward evidence to the Commissioner that means she can no longer make certain findings in fact that will have an impact on both her ability to serve the Monetary Penalty Notice and the amount of that notice.
It could be many more weeks, if not months before we know whether a Monetary Penalty Notice is in fact being served on Facebook and how much it is for. The Commissioner must serve the Monetary Penalty Notice on Facebook within six month of serving the Notice of Intent.
There are some other aspects of the Commissioner’s report that are worthy of some brief consideration. The Commissioner has announced that she is intending on prosecuting SCL Elections Limited. The information given by the Commissioner suggests that this prosecution is to be limited to one very specific issue: their failure to comply with an Enforcement Notice previously served on the company. The Enforcement Notice was served on the company after they failed to comply with a subject access request received by them from a US academic. The company was in administration when the Enforcement Notice was served and remains in administration today. The Information Commissioner is able to prosecute offences under the legislation it is responsible for enforcing in its own right; except in Scotland where it requires to report the matter to the Procurator Fiscal in the same way as every other law enforcement agency is required. How successful that prosecution will be and what benefit it will bring remains to be seen given that the company is in administration. Even if the company is successfully
We have also seen what appears to be the first piece of enforcement action taken under the Data Protection Act 2018 and the General data Protection Regulation. The Commissioner has served an Enforcement Notice on the Canadian company, Aggregate IQ [pdf]. This amounts to what could be termed as a “stop processing notice” and it requires Aggregate IQ to, within 30 days, “cease processing any personal data of UK or EU citizens obtained from UK political organisations or otherwise for the purposes of data analytics, political campaigning, or any other advertising.”
Failure to comply with an Enforcement Notice under the Data Protection Act 2018 and the GDPR is not (unlike under the Data Protection Act 1998) a criminal offence; however, a failure to comply can result in an administrative fine of up to €20 million or 4% of global turnover (whichever is the greater). How successful the ICO will be at enforcing this enforcement notice, given that the company is located in Canada and appears to have no established base in the UK, or any other EU member state, remains to be seen.
Other investigations are still ongoing. The Commissioner appears to be continuing to investigate whether there was any unlawful data sharing between Leave.EU and Eldon Insurance. Investigations are also being undertaken into the main ‘Remain’ campaign in the EU referendum and also into all of the UK’s main political parties. It remains to be seen what will happen there.
The Commissioner’s report also informs us that the appeal by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) against an Information Notice previously served upon them has been dismissed. The First-Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) has not yet published a decision in that case on its website, but should it do so I shall endeavour to blog on that decision (especially given that there has never to my knowledge been an appeal to the Tribunal against an Information Notice). Failure to comply with an Information Notice is a criminal offence, and a company was recently fined £2,000 at Telford Magistrates’ Court for that very offence.
If you require advice or assistance on a matter relating to data protection or privacy law then you can contact Alistair Sloan on 0141 229 0880 or send him an E-mail. You can also follow our twitter account dedicated to information law matters.