£145k fine for data sharing process failings

In April 2019 the ICO issued a fine for £145,000 to the London Borough of Newham for unlawfully disclosing personal data of more than 200 individuals who were featured on the Metropolitan Polices “Gang Matrix” intelligence database. The data in redacted and unredacted forms were shared with 44 recipients including external organisations and voluntary agencies.

It’s not clear from the ICO’s report of the case the actual circumstances of the sharing of the data, i.e. as to why it had been shared in the first place, but a number of issues were instrumental in the setting of the fine:

  • the breadth of the sharing was a consideration – it was shared with 44 recipients
  • there was a perfectly good redacted version of the data that could have been shared in the first place, so there was no need to share the unredacted version as well
  • copies of the data were shared via Snapchat and it’s possible that this could have led to a number of serious incidents of gang violence, although the ICO says it’s not possible to say whether the breach was the cause (but highlights the wider consideration of “harm” to data subjects from breaches)
  • the Council never reported the breach to the ICO and whilst there were internal investigations to consider the incident these didn’t start until nearly a year after the breach
  • there was little evidence of any “specific sharing agreements, policy or guidance in place” to direct members of staff on how to securely share data.

In his comments, the Deputy Commissioner said:

“Our investigation concluded that it was unnecessary, unfair and excessive for Newham Council to have shared the unredacted database with a large number of people and organisations, when a redacted version was readily available. The risks associated with such a transfer of sensitive information should have been obvious.”

So what can organisations learn from this kind of breach and the resultant action by the ICO?

  1. Make sure you have clear internal processes and policies with regards to how data is shared. Generally speaking this will need to range from internal sharing protocols, to sharing with external parties including law enforcement and other bodies who may request access. This will be particularly relevant if you’re handling particularly sensitive data (the outcome of the breach could lead to significant harm to the data subjects)
  2. Make sure your team understand their responsibilities when it comes to data protection compliance, particularly in understanding what internal policies exist and what is and isn’t acceptable
  3. Always consider data minimisation in terms of any processing – if personal data (or elements of personal data) does not need to be shared or included, then remove (redact) it
  4. Never under estimate the consequences of a breach should one occur – remember the breach reporting test in GDPR is about the likelihood of harm to the data subject and that is not just financial, it could be physical harm, mental or other health related outcome
  5. Never try to hide a breach or not give it the attention it requires – you never know how the ICO may find out about it

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