We’ve had years of headlines about Cambridge Analytica and Facebook which have captured the public’s imagination like never before, and generated huge publicity for the Information Commissioner’s Office and their army of blue-jacketed enforcers. Action, on the other hand, has been slightly less forthcoming. No action has been taken against Cambridge Analytica itself – there is the prosecution of SCL Elections over a subject access request made by an American (David Carroll), but if anyone can explain why prosecuting the now defunct company when the best outcome is a fine that will never be paid because it will be buried at the bottom of the pile of creditors, comment below. The ICO issued their first GDPR enforcement notice against AIQ, and it was so clumsy it had to be withdrawn and replaced (it’s astonishing that the ICO’s mishandling of this landmark action has gone virtually unnoticed). There is the famous Facebook fine of course, but that is already under appeal. Given that the Commissioner’s case changed radically from the Notice of Intent (published against all normal ICO practice) to final penalty, I don’t think that the ICO should count any chickens on the outcome.
The other issue haunting the case is a number of legal firms mounting ambitious compensation claims on behalf of those who believe themselves to be affected. Just as I am sceptical about the ICO’s track record, some odd assertions in a story in the Independent about David Carroll’s own attempt to sue Cambridge Analytica make me wonder whether the compensation road will be any less rocky. The claim is happening under the old Data Protection Act, and so Carroll and his solicitors will have to prove some kind of damage. Carroll’s solicitor Ravi Naik from ITN Solicitors is quoted as saying payouts could spiral to as much as £43 billion if only 10% of the possible affected pool of people claimed successfully.
“Even if one conservatively uses the lowest end of the range, both in number and value of each claim, and calculates on the basis of 10 per cent of the estimated 87 million affected Facebook users only, with claims of £5,000 each against Cambridge Analytica, that still implies a total potential claim value of £43.5bn”
I think his claims are optimistic at best, and at worst, comically exaggerated. Facebook did claim that up to 87 million people’s data may have been affected, but they’ve wavered since – to the extent that the ICO now admit that UK data wasn’t used by Cambridge Analytica in their final penalty on Facebook, despite building their NOI around that very claim. Carroll is claiming between £5000 and £20000, but he won’t get a penny unless he can show evidence of the breach in the first place, and then evidence of the damage. Claiming compensation for non-material damage is tricky. You can’t show something concrete like lost wages or business – the money won’t be awarded just because Carroll says he’s upset or annoyed, and the courts have shown scepticism in the past about claims of damage or distress (look at the Tetrus case that ICO lost on the issue of distress a few years back).
That 87 million number is a maximum, not a certainty, and the UK courts have shown themselves to be unmoved by generic class action claims of damage. Look at Richard Lloyd’s failed claim against Google, where the court said that different people will react to the use of their data in different ways. Perhaps Carroll has made a good case about the harm he says was done to him, but even if he has, that is not to say that all claimants are in the same position. If my data was abused by Facebook, my reaction would be numb resignation at worst. I can’t get outraged about Facebook abusing my data, any more than I can get upset by rain being wet. This is why I don’t use Facebook.
The consensus on LinkedIn seems to be that a possible breach is automatically accompanied by a ringing cash register – but that’s not a safe assumption, backed by any evidence. Lloyd lost his Google claim. Everyone who wrote excited Tweets and LinkedIn posts about the outcome of the recent Morrisons case – where the supermarket was found vicariously liable for a breach committed by an employee – ignored the fact that even if Morrisons lose their planned appeal to the Supreme Court, the issue of how much each claimant gets hasn’t been considered yet. Admittedly, Morrisons is a claim for misuse of private information and breach of confidence, but even so, we haven’t got to the bit about the money yet. The claimants may each get a big payout; they may get bus fare. There hasn’t been a case in the UK where multiple people received a big payout because their personal data was abused.
Naik’s extravagant claims and ambitious maths make for an impressive headline, but it’s speculation. I’m uncomfortable about the idea of tempting people into joining litigation (which is presumably the point of Naik’s claim) using hyped-up numbers in this way. The words sound sensible, and Naik effectively describes his estimate as conservative, but it’s a fantasy. Carroll will lose unless he can persuade the court that a breach occurred, that he experienced damage, and that there is a figure that will compensate him for that harm. We have had a few interesting and successful compensation claims in the past, but the idea that we’re looking at lottery jackpots for DP claimants is, so far, Fake News.