The bedrock of Data Protection is fairness. You cannot gain consent without fairness. Your interests are not legitimate interests if they are secret interests. Unless you have an exemption or you claim that telling the person represents disproportionate effort (i.e. the effort of telling outweighs the actual impact), you have to tell the person whose data you are using the purposes for which their data will be used, and any other information necessary to make the processing fair.
The ICO’s Privacy Notices Code of Practice is not ambiguous, nor was its predecessor. It is impossible to read the ICO’s published guidance on fair processing without taking away the key message, consistently repeated for more than a decade: if something is surprising or objectionable, especially if it involves some kind of impact or sharing outside the organisation, it should be spelt out. New-ish Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham seems to have chosen to reverse the ICO’s previously timid, unimaginative approach to the first principle with a pair of civil monetary penalties against charities. We have one each for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the British Heart Foundation, with the promise of more to come. You might say it was unfortunate that charities are first in line rather than, say, credit reference agencies or list brokers (to be a touch tautological). It was the charity sector’s misfortune to fall under the Daily Mail’s Basilisk gaze, and they have to accept that we are where we are.
To issue a civil monetary penalty, there are three hurdles for the ICO to clear. Firstly, there must be a serious breach. Both charities used commercial companies to profile thousands (and in one case, millions) of donors, buying up data from publicly available sources* to assess their wealth and resources, they shared data with other charities whose identity they did not know via a commercial company, and in the case of the RSPCA, they bought contact details to fill in data that donors had provided. The average donor did not have any idea that this was happening. I can see there’s a problem that when everyone in the charity sector knows that wealth screening goes on, it seems normal. But I’ve been using it as an example on my training courses ever since the Mail revealed it, and bear in mind that these are often seasoned data protection professionals who know about data sharing and disclosure, attendees are invariably shocked and some cases revolted by what I tell them.
There is no doubt in my mind that this processing needed to be spelt out, and there is no doubt from the notices that it was not. Carefully selected third parties or partners has been a stupid lie in marketing for years, but not even knowing where the data goes is much worse than the usual flogging it to all comers. At least the list broker knows who he’s flogging it to, even though the only careful selection is the ability to pay.
The second hurdle is the need to show that the breach is likely to cause damage or distress to the affected data subjects. It’s been known for quite some time that the ICO was planning to take enforcement action over the Mail stories, and the gossip I heard from charities was that fines were likely. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t convinced. The Information Commissioner lost a Data Protection Tribunal appeal from Scottish Borders Council because they bungled the damage / distress element of a £250000 CMP over pension records found in recycling bins. ICO made a flawed claim that the loss of paper pension records was likely to result in identity theft, but Borders had an expert witness who could argue convincingly that this was not true. The link between the breach (the absence of a contract with the company processing the data) and the damage was broken, and the ICO lost.
But this case is different. The ICO does not need to make a link between an incident and a breach, because they are bound up together here. Both notices show that the ICO has given considerable thought to the distress angle. There is no question that the charities breached the first principle, and their only hope for an appeal is to convince the Tribunal that people would not be caused substantial distress by secret profiling and data sharing after an act of generosity. This is not science, and all I can say is that I am persuaded. But for an appeal to be successful, the charities will need to persuade a Tribunal with strong experience and knowledge of DP and PECR from the numerous (and almost exclusively doomed) marketing appeals.
The third element requires the breach to be deliberate or a situation where the charities ought reasonably to have known about the breach. As I have already said, the ICO’s position on fair processing is well known in my sector and available to anyone who can type the ICO’s web address. I think it’s possible that the charities didn’t know what they were doing was a breach, but in my opinion, this is because the Institute of Fundraising and the Fundraising Standards Board effectively acted as a firewall between charities and reality. The advice (often inaccurate and out of date) came from the IoF, and complaints about charities went to the FRSB and no further. When your code of practice is written by the people who earn their living from fundraising and most in your sector are doing the same thing as you are, it’s not hard to fool yourself into thinking it’s OK. But ‘everybody does it’ will cut no ice with the Tribunal. The RSPCA and the BHF are not tiny charities flailing in the dark – they are massive, multi-million pound operations with vastly greater resources than many of my clients.
Daniel Fluskey, head of Policy for the Institute of Fundraising, whose apparent lack of experience or qualifications in Data Protection does not prevent him from writing inaccurate articles for the charity sector on GDPR, has already weighed in, saying that the ICO should be providing the specific wording that charities require: “Charities need more detail on the ICO’s view of what lawful practice looks like: what form of words would have passed the test?” The Information Commissioner is the regulator for every organisation, of every size and shape, that processes personal data. If they start writing tailored wording for charities, they will have to do it for everyone else as well. It is a ridiculous demand. I think the ICO should move on to the data pools, wealth screeners and list brokers, but if she could find the time to issue an enforcement notice on the Institute of Fundraising, forbidding them ever to speak or write on Data Protection matters again, the third sector would have a fighting chance of complying.
Besides, how hard is it to find compliant wording? Nobody – especially not the trade association for fundraisers – should be allowed to present this as a byzantine and complex task. The individual doesn’t need to know what software you’re using, or whether cookies are involved. They need to understand the purpose – what are you collecting, what are you going to do with it, who are you going to give it to? This should be presented without euphemism or waffle, but it’s when you strip out the legalistic nonsense, you see the problem. It isn’t that the poor charities were labouring under the burden of complex data protection rules. They could not comply with the Data Protection Act because what they were doing (and in RSPCA’s case, are apparently still doing) is so unattractive:
- We will share your details with unspecified charities via a commercial company. We don’t know who they are.
- We will buy your phone number, postal or email address from a commercial company if you have not given it to us.
- We will use commercial companies to compile a profile of your wealth and property to work out whether to ask you for further donations. If you are likely to be worth a lot when you die, we will use this information to ask you for a bequest.
When Reactiv Media appealed their PECR penalty, the Tribunal rejected their appeal and increased the penalty. Like a lot of the spammers, they put themselves into administration to avoid paying up, but this option is not available to household name charities. If either the RSPCA or BHF appeal, they are dragging themselves deeper into the mud, and very possibly spending thousands more of donors’ money to do so. If they say that what they did wasn’t a breach, or that they couldn’t have been expected to know that it was, their officers, advice and business model will be scrutinised to a doubtlessly painful extent. The claims management company Quigley and Carter found themselves described as “feckless” and “most unimpressive” in the course of being filleted during a recent failed appeal. Do charities really want that? Even if they decide to roll the dice solely on distress, does either charity really want to acknowledge a serious breach that they knew or ought to have know about in the hope of getting the fine overturned on a technicality? Do they want ICO to call donors as witnesses?
The business model of pressure selling, TPS-busting, heavy texting, data sharing and donor-swapping adopted by some of the UK’s most celebrated charities resembles nothing so much as the activities of the claims management, PPI spammers (i.e. the scum of the earth). For all the noise and bluster on Twitter and in the charity press this week, there is an uncomfortable truth that has to be faced. The hated Daily Mail unearthed it, and the ICO has rightly acted on it. Some big charities have run an end-justifies-the-means approach to marketing and they have got away with it for a decade. Fundraisers ruled the roost, and compliance has been sidelined or ignored. Given how much money the RSPCA and the BHF have raised from fundamentally unlawful practices, they should pull back and rethink how they get donations in the future. They should ignore the Institute of Fundraising’s every word on Data Protection and PECR, and like every other charity, concentrate on reading and applying the ICO’s Code on Privacy Notices and guidance on Direct Marketing.
And right now, if there is a fundraiser sitting with the two CMP notices working out how to at the same time devise a method to raise loads of cash for their cause while complying with Data Protection and PECR, I hope they wipe the floor with everyone else.