The Only Way Is Up – Fining Powers on the Increase for Data Protection Breaches

Julianna Tolan
Julianna Tolan

Last year saw the Information Commissioner’s Office impose record fines for data protection breaches, totalling £2,155,500.

TalkTalk was on the receiving end of the greatest financial penalty in ICO history for a highly publicised cyber-attack that claimed more than 150,000 of its customers’ personal details. The regulator considered these security failings sufficiently grave to issue the telecoms company with a £400,000 fine, close to its maximum fining powers of £500,000.

Other recipients of financial penalties from the ICO in 2016 included EE Limited, Hampshire County Council and David Lammy MP. In the latter case, Mr Lammy was accused of instigating 35,629 calls over two days, playing a recorded message that urged people to back his campaign to be named the Labour party candidate for London Mayor. This conduct resulted in a £5,000 fine for nuisance calls.

Of course, the ICO has a host of other enforcement tools at its disposal, such as issuing undertakings, serving enforcement notices and in the most serious cases, commencing a criminal prosecution against individuals or companies who contravene the Data Protection Act.

But for bottom-line conscious business, monetary penalties have historically been an effective means of compelling compliance with good business practice.

That ought to be the case now more than ever, as the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into force on 25 May 2018, which will radically increase the maximum fines that can be imposed on UK businesses from £500,000 to an upper limit of €20 million or 4% or annual global turnover – whichever is higher.

These previously unprecedented fining powers mean that for many companies, the outcome of a serious data protection breach could conceivably result in insolvency or even closure of the business.

Given the profound detriment that data losses have been shown to cause to consumers over the past 12 months, it is perhaps timely that the ICO is finally catching up with other UK regulators. Enforcement authorities in the fields of health and safety, competition and environmental protection have long possessed the power to impose exorbitant fines capable of closing errant businesses down.

With the GDPR on the horizon, businesses should now seize the opportunity to monitor and review their compliance with data protection laws, including the effectiveness of internal policies and procedures. After all, the consequences of failing to do so could be costly.

Julianna Tolan is an Employed Barrister in the Dispute Resolution team at Fox Williams LLP acting for commercial and financial services clients in respect of contentious and non-contentious regulatory issues. Julianna can be contacted at jtolan@foxwilliams.com

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