On May 3rd 2018, Elizabeth Denham appeared on Channel 4 News as part of her long running commitment to generating headlines. Denham’s track record on the programme is not great – it was on the same programme in March that she adopted the interesting tactic (uniquely, as far as I can see) of informing an organisation in public and in advance that she planned to apply for a warrant to raid them, losing what might be a useful element of surprise in order to look tough in front of Jon Snow.
In the more recent interview, the Commissioner claimed that she had the power to fine directors and had done so. I made an FOI request about this, and the ICO admitted that “we do not have the power to directly fine directors“, directly contradicting what Denham said. You can tell me that ICO has the power to go after directors in limited circumstances that can result in a court issuing a fine and that must be what she meant (ICO did) but that’s not good enough. The DP regulator went on the telly and claimed to have a power she doesn’t have – it’s surely part of Denham’s job to increase understanding of Data Protection, not to muddy the waters.
In the same interview, Denham cheerily announced that she saw herself as a Sheriff of the internet. Arguably, she should be a Mountie but let’s leave that to one side. I assumed that the statement was a throwaway, not a serious statement of how Denham sees herself and her office. I was wrong. There’s a pattern. In a fawning profile by the Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr a few weeks ago, the Commissioner delivered a soundbite that I suspect is intended to epitomise the Denham Era: “Data crimes are real crimes“. And in the recently leaked DCMS Committee report into Fake News, she was at it again:
“For the public, we need to be able to understand why an individual sees a certain ad. Why does an individual see a message in their newsfeed that somebody else does not see? We are really the data cops here. We are doing a data audit to be able to understand and to pull back the curtain on the advertising model around political campaigning and election”
I think the misleading impression being created here could attract the label ‘fake news’ just as much as any of the internet nonsense Denham and her fanbase are supposedly against. Data crimes are usually not real crimes, and in most cases, the ICO are not the cops. The GDPR doesn’t make anything a criminal offence, and the offences under the Data Protection Act 2018, like those in its predecessor the 1998 Act, are specific. It’s a criminal offence to take, procure or sell personal data without the permission of the data controller; it’s an offence to re-identify depersonalised data (in circumstances so tightly defined I doubt there will be a successful prosecution), and it can be an offence to oblige someone to make a subject access request. Admittedly, the DPA 2018 is stricter in this area – offences under the DPA 1998 were not recordable so you wouldn’t get a criminal record if you committed them, a position that is sensibly reversed in the new version.
However, in some circumstances, the DPA 2018 is less oriented towards offences than the DPA 1998. A breach of an Enforcement or Information Notice is no longer subject to prosecution, being punishable by a penalty instead. That might result in stricter punishments, but that depends on Wilmslow showing a willingness to use the powers, and in any case, it’s not a criminal sanction. The much-vaunted criminal prosecution of SCL by the Commissioner over David Carroll’s subject access request is doomed in my opinion, but if it goes ahead, it will almost certainly be the last prosecution for a breach of a notice. None of the DP offences are punishable with prison, and for all Denham’s bluster about being a data cop, she never publicly applies the pressure for custodial sentences. For all his faults, her predecessor Christopher Graham never missed an opportunity to do so.
If Facebook willingly shared its customers personal data with Cambridge Analytica, it would not be a criminal offence. If they reused their customers’ data and sold it to list brokers, it would not be a criminal offence. As drafted, the ‘victim’ of most data protection offences would be the data controller, not the person whose data is misappropriated, sold or misused. Denham wants to conjure up images of cops and robbers, but she’s misleading the public. Who knows, maybe she doesn’t want people to realise that the only sanction for the majority of data transgressions are monetary penalty that she has the power to approve. Maybe she means ‘data crimes should be real crimes‘, but if that’s the case, that what she should say instead of giving the wrong impression.
There’s another problem. By setting herself up as the Internet Sheriff, Denham is creating expectations I don’t believe she’s prepared to meet. In all her public appearances, the Commissioner is clearly trying to mark out the internet and new technology as her manor. Supporters like Cadwalladr are only too happy to play along. The Observer piece contains a brief but devastating verdict on thirty or so years of ICO work and four previous Commissioners: “a somewhat dusty regulator dealing in a niche topic“. I’m the last person to defend the ICO, but this writes off Wilmslow’s endeavours on phone hacking, union blacklisting, the lost HMRC data disks and many DP and PECR fines which even I can’t deny have changed behaviour for the better in many sectors. I can’t say that Denham endorses this trashing of her predecessors’ efforts, but she hasn’t repudiated it either. What must her staff think of it?
Strip away the recent headlines for prosecutions and £500,000 fines that haven’t actually happened yet, and Denham’s record is hardly the Data Protection equivalent of Wyatt Earp taking on the Clantons. When dealing with the misuse of 1.6 million people’s data by the Royal Free Hospital and the AI company owned by Google (exactly the kind of tech territory we’re supposed to believe she wants to police), Denham’s ICO asked the Royal Free to sign an undertaking. There is no automatic sanction if they go back on it. Faced with multiple instances of charities profiling potential donors in secret (not a million miles away from the kind of surreptitious data gathering that attracts her current ire), Denham’s response was reportedly to cut the originally proposed fines, such that Oxfam was fined just £6000. Late in 2017, Sheriff Denham issued an enforcement notice against the Ministry of Justice over shameful and long-running subject access backlogs that doubtlessly affected many people in desperate legal circumstances. She gave them eight months to comply and sneaked the notice out on the last working day before Christmas without a press release.
You can tell me that the ICO has consistently issued monetary penalties on Denham’s watch but so did Graham, though the double whammy of £400,000 CMPs on both TalkTalk and Carphone Warehouse weigh against my argument to some extent. But beyond those, Denham has done nothing revolutionary or interesting in enforcement. There has been no action on accuracy or retention, and little on the vital first principle beyond the charity cases that were obviously started under Graham.
Outwardly, Denham seems poised and plausible. Fate has dealt her the biggest data protection story in a decade and some
overly sympathetic press coverage, so maybe she’s right to milk it and build up her part. There’s no question that she has a higher public profile than any of the Commissioners who have gone before her, and I know a lot of people in the DP world who think that this is automatically a good thing. I’m not convinced. I think ‘data crimes are real crimes’ could become as unhelpful a distraction as the pervasive ‘GDPR = consent’ myth, and nothing about the past two years convinces me that Denham really has what it takes to round up the internet’s outlaws. As always, I will delighted to be proved wrong; some eyecatching monster scalps is what I have spent years of blogging asking for, and it will make my job easier for the next few years. But unless she really pulls out the big guns, the Commissioner’s legacy may be less Gunfight at the IT Corral, and more Denham’s Last Stand.