Ten top tips for DSARs: What do employers need to know when responding to Data Subject Access Requests?

Helen Farr
Helen Farr
Daisy Jones
Daisy Jones

We’re now one year on from the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”) and one of the consequences for our clients has been a significant rise in the number of data subject access requests (“DSARs”) made by employees. By making a DSAR, current and former employees can obtain all their “personal data” held by their employer. As personal data is information that relates to an identifiable individual, employers hold significant amounts of personal data about their staff.

DSARs are notoriously time-consuming to manage and, under the GDPR, the time period employers have to respond has been reduced to one month from the longer period of 40 days that applied under the old regime.

Given the increase in number of requests and the shorter period for a response we set out below 10 top tips to help employers if and when they receive a request:

1. Create a protocol so that your business can respond within one month

In today’s electronic world, employees generate significant amounts of material which is likely to contain their personal data and which will need to be collated, reviewed and processed before your business can respond to a DSAR. Doing all of this within the short deadline of one month can be difficult, so having an agreed protocol in place which outlines the steps you will take to respond to a DSAR can help save precious time. A protocol should include an allocation of responsibilities and the steps which must be taken to comply with a request.

Although it is possible in exceptional circumstances to notify the employee, within a month of receiving the DSAR, that you require three months to reply, the circumstances when an extension of time may be justified are rare. The exceptional circumstances apply to complex requests or to repeated requests from the same employee. However, these circumstances will apply rarely. Remember that your employee can challenge your decision to extend time to the ICO (Information Commissioner’s Office).

2. Train your staff

Your staff need to understand the importance of dealing promptly with DSARs. This will include who within your business should be notified once a DSAR is received and, if they are responsible for responding to the request, how it should be managed. Crucially relevant staff need to be trained on these points

3. Try to narrow the scope of the request

Often employees will be interested in very specific material when they submit a DSAR. For example, if they are participating in a grievance or disciplinary process or have recently had their employment terminated, there are likely to be particular documents they want to read. The scope of the request may be clear from the initial request. However, if it isn’t clear consider having a conversation with the person making the request about what they want and whether the request can be narrowed. Doing so should help to ensure you can respond within 30 days and only give the employee the personal data they really want. Of course this isn’t always possible.

4. Consider using a bespoke platform to manage the DSAR

It can be helpful to use bespoke electronic platforms to manage DSARs as these will often have specific functionality to assist with running searches, identifying relevant documents and carrying out redaction. This can be very useful particularly for larger DSARs, which can otherwise be very difficult to manage on an employer’s normal IT platform. Employers should discuss this with their IT provider and make sure that their systems are fit for purpose.

5. Use appropriate search terms and do a sample review before undertaking a full review

Once you know what you are looking for, consider using search terms to generate an initial set of results. This might be the employee’s name (or variations on it) plus key words and date ranges which are likely to generate personal data, taking account of the scope of the request. Once you have created an initial set of results, carry out a sample review to make sure that the results are largely relevant. Depending on the search that you’ve carried out, you might have generated a lot of false positives which could be removed by a further refinement to your search terms before you conduct a full review.

6 .Carry out a full review to ensure that the results contain personal data

Just because an individual’s name is mentioned in a document doesn’t necessarily mean that the document contains personal data. Make sure that you understand the test for personal data and apply it to your search results appropriately. Remember, personal data is information which relates to an identifiable individual.

7. Use the exemptions

When analysing the personal data, review the documents for those that are exempt from disclosure. You may need to take advice on this but the exemptions include references given or received, management forecasting or planning, information about negotiating intentions – perhaps in relation to a settlement agreement, third party information or information that may be subject to legal professional privilege.

8. Allow enough time for redaction

Once you have produced an initial set of results containing the employee’s personal data, you will need to review the material to see if anything needs to be redacted. In particular, you should ensure that any privileged material or personal data of other individuals is redacted before the response is sent to the employee.

9. Allow enough time to send the response

Depending on how the DSAR was submitted and the size of the response, you may need to provide a hard copy and/or electronic response. If you’re going to provide an electronic response, consider whether you will share the response on an electronic platform (and, if so, which one will you use) or whether you will email the response (in which case, ensure you have the right email address and that the attachments are small enough to be sent through any relevant firewalls).

10. Create an audit trail

If an employee is dissatisfied with the response they receive to a DSAR they may complain about it to the Information Commissioner or a court or tribunal. If they do so, it will be important that you can demonstrate the steps you took to respond to the DSAR so as to minimise the risk of sanctions being applied.

How we can help

We regularly advise our clients on how to respond to DSARs and often work through these steps with them. If you’d like more information about the services we provide or if you have any questions arising out of this article, please contact us.

 

Helen Farr is a partner, and Daisy Jones is a senior associate, in our HR law team.

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Tricky issues with use of employee data

Helen Farr
Helen Farr

Employers cannot manage the employment relationship without using their employees’ data. Data is used by employers on a daily basis for a variety of tasks ranging from monitoring sickness absence, administering benefits to paying salary using payroll.

To process this data lawfully most employers rely on provisions in the employment contract authorising them to do so.‎ However, employers need to be aware that simply including a provision in a contract may not be enough if the employer is using a specific class of data; sensitive personal data.

Sensitive personal data includes data about an employee’s health, sexuality, diversity and political beliefs. To use this data lawfully employers need the employee’s express consent to do so.

Problems can arise for employers in a number of situations where they need to use sensitive personal data.

A common problem area is when a referral ‎is made to a company’s occupational health team for an opinion and prognosis on an employee’s health problems. There are two main components to occupational health records: transferable information and the confidential clinical record. Transferable information is information that is generally accessible by the employer, the employee and enforcing bodies like the HSE – it includes information about accidents at work, monitoring data and exposure to hazards. The confidential clinical record is specific to the employee and his or her health during employment. This is sensitive personal data.

‎When the referral is made to Occupational Health it must be made with the employee’s consent. However, relying on consent may not be enough to protect the employer from a claim.

Employers must ensure that when they make a request for a medical report from Occupational Health the request is focussed and limited to the purposes for which consent is obtained.

They also need to make sure that any medical information provided to Occupational Health is focused. It is common practice for HR practitioners making the referral to send all sickness records they have about the employee. But what if the employee has suffered various health problems over the years, including conditions that the employee would not necessarily want his or her line manager or the wider business to know about? If the Occupational Health report refers to these historical conditions there could be claims by the disgruntled employee.

The consent that has been obtained is unlikely to be enough to protect the employer from a claim. Potential claims include a breach of the employee’s right to privacy and breach of the Data Protection Act. The issue could also lead to claims of discrimination. Therefore employers should not complacently rely on the consent received when requesting a report but must properly consider the ‎particular purposes for which the report is needed.

Our experience is most businesses do not send a copy of the Occupational Health referral to the employee. Best practice must be to do so. This will avoid any potential problem when the employee reads a report containing lots of historical medical information ; it makes it difficult for them to claim they did not agree to it being referred to.

Another potential problem area is the use of sensitive personal data about an employee’s sexual orientation. Many large employers have relationship at work policies obliging their employees to disclose information about romantic relationships with work colleagues. Of course this policy applies to same sex relationships.

Again the problem employers often omit to consider is how that information is used. The business justification for disclosure of a relationship with a work colleague is to enable the employer to ensure that the parties to the relationship do not either benefit or suffer because of it. Sometimes employers post information about the existence of a relationship with a colleague on their intranet.

What the policy authors overlook is that the employer needs express consent to process information about sexuality which of course this is. Therefore posting such information on the company’s intranet, unless the employee expressly consents to this, will be a clear breach of the Data Protection Act. There may also be claims for discrimination if the employee suffers less favourable treatment following publication of the information.

Employers therefore need to take care when relying on policies that allow them to use data. If the data concerned is sensitive personal data reliance on the policy is not enough to protect them from claims.

 

Helen Farr is a Partner in the HR Law team at Fox Williams LLP and can be contacted at HFarr@foxwilliams.com.

Court of Appeal rules on subject access request in favour of data subjects

Laura Monro
Laura Monro

Back in November 2015 we reported that the High Court decision in Dawson-Damer v Taylor Wessing brought cautious optimism for data controllers when the judge refused to make an order for compliance with three subject access requests (see https://idatalaw.com/2015/11/24/high-court-decision-brings-cautious-optimism-for-data-controllers/). However, the Court of Appeal has taken a different approach, overturning the High Court decision and ordering compliance by Taylor Wessing, the data controller, with the subject access requests.

In its decision the Court of Appeal focused on the following three key issues:

The extent of the legal professional privilege exception

One of the family members was involved in litigation in the Bahamas with Taylor Wessing’s client which was the Bahamian trustee of the family’s trust fund. Taylor Wessing did not comply with the subject access requests, claiming to be entitled to the exemption for legal professional privilege. The High Court decided that all documents in respect of which the trustee would be entitled to resist disclosure under the ongoing litigation in the Bahamas would be protected by the legal professional privilege exception under English law.

However, the Court of Appeal took a more narrow view, finding that the legal professional privilege exception:

  1. applies only to documents which are protected by legal professional privilege under English law, and does not extend to systems of law outside the UK; and
  2. does not extend to documents which are the subject of non-disclosure rules, in this case the applicable rules being the trustee’s right of non-disclosure.

Whether any further search would involve “disproportionate effort”

The Data Protection Act provides that a data controller must supply the data subject with a copy of the information requested under a subject access request unless the supply of such information “is not possible or would involve disproportionate effort”.

Although the High Court concluded that it was not reasonable or proportionate for Taylor Wessing to carry out searches to determine if any particular document was covered by privilege, the Court of Appeal disagreed.

 The Court of Appeal stated that Taylor Wessing must produce evidence to show what it has done to identify the material and to work out a plan of action. It found that further compliance with the subject access requests would not involve disproportionate effort by Taylor Wessing, and that disproportionate effort must involve more than an assertion that it is too difficult to search through voluminous papers.

Whether the judge would have been entitled to refuse to exercise his discretion in favour of the data subjects because their motive was to use the information in legal proceedings against the trustees

The Court of Appeal held that the High Court judge was wrong not to enforce the subject access requests despite the motive of the data subjects.

Neither the Data Protection Act nor the ICO’s subject access code of practice provides that data subjects have to inform the data controller of their reason for making the subject access request, or what they intend to do with the information requested. There is no “no other purpose” rule which would allow a data controller to refuse to respond to a subject access request if the data subject proposes to use the information obtained for a purpose other than verifying or correcting the personal data held about them.

It follows that the intention of the data subject to use the personal data for the purpose of litigation proceedings cannot be used by a data controller to avoid complying with a subject access request.

The decision of the Court of Appeal finds in favour of the data subjects and serves as a warning to data controllers that significant effort may be needed in responding to subject access requests. Data controllers should also bear in mind that following the implementation of the GDPR in May 2018 there will be less time to comply with subject access requests – the GDPR requires that information must be provided without delay and at the latest within one month of receipt rather than the current 40 days. It is prudent for data controllers to be reviewing their policies and procedures now to ensure that they will be able to comply with the GDPR once it comes into force.

Laura Monro is an associate in the commerce & technology team at City law firm Fox Williams LLP and can be contacted at lmonro@foxwilliams.com

Dynamic IP address can be personal data

Nigel Miller
Nigel Miller

Whether or not an IP address is “personal data” can be a crucial question because the answer determines whether or not the data is subject to the rigours of the EU Data Protection Directive (in the UK, the Data Protection Act).

An IP address is a number used to identify a device on a network. An IP address can be “dynamic” or “static”. A static IP address remains constant and does not change every time the device connects to the Internet. In contrast, the more usual dynamic IP address changes each time a new connection is made.

It has long been agreed that static IP addresses are personal data because they enable a link to be made with a particular device for profiling. IP addresses enable an individual to be “singled out” (even if that individual’s real-world identity remains unknown).

In its early opinion 4/2007, the Article 29 Working Party accepted that an IP address, for example, for a computer in an Internet café used by many people may not identify any particular individual. In other cases, however, the IP address can be associated with a particular user if for example there is a log of who used the computer at the relevant time. The Working Party therefore concluded that all IP information should be treated as personal data, “to be on the safe side”.

The question of whether a dynamic IP address can be “personal data” was less certain.

Patrick Breyer v Bundesrepublik Deutschland

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has now ruled that dynamic IP addresses held by a website operator are personal data where the operator has “the legal means which enable it to identify the data subject with additional data which the internet service provider has about that person”.

While a dynamic IP address alone may not directly identify an individual, when combined with other information a dynamic IP address could be used to identify the individual user.

The question before the Court was whether a dynamic IP address can be personal data if the relevant additional information is in the hands of a third party (an internet service provider).

The case was brought by a politician, Mr Patrick Breyer, against the Federal Republic of Germany seeking to prevent them from storing, or arranging for third parties to store, his IP address from when he consulted publicly accessible websites of German Federal institutions. Mr Breyer claimed that IP addresses qualify as personal data under data protection laws; and therefore that consent was needed for processing such data.

If a user of a website reveals his identity on the website, for example by completing a form, then the IP address is certainly personal data because the operator of that website is able to identify the user by linking his name to his computer’s IP address.

However, if the user does not reveal his identity, the IP address alone does not enable the user to be directly identified. The website operator can identify the user only if the information relating to his identity is communicated to them by his ISP.

The court decided that the fact that the additional data necessary to identify the user are held, not by the website operator, but by the user’s ISP does not exclude dynamic IP addresses from being personal data. The question is whether the website operator has a legal way to obtain the additional data from the ISP. In that case it was decided that the Federal Republic of Germany did have a legal means to obtain the necessary additional information from the ISP and therefore the raw dynamic IP address data should be regarded as personal data.  For information to be treated as “personal data”, it is not necessary that all the information enabling the identification of the data subject must be in the hands of one person.

Comment

The Court has decided that a dynamic IP address could – but will not always necessarily – constitute personal data. In light of this decision, businesses that have not up to now been treating dynamic IP addresses as personal data need to re-assess that position and may need to alter data compliance practices. This may for example impact businesses engaged in online analytics and targeted advertising.

It may be that the case highlights a possible difference between the UK Data Protection Act and the implementation of the Directive in other EU countries. In the UK, data is personal data if an individual can be identified from those data and from “other information which is in the possession of, or is likely to come into the possession of, the data controller”. Is data “likely” to come into the possession of a data controller where the only way for him to obtain it is to ask for it?

All this will soon become academic as, looking ahead to May 2018, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) specifically includes online identifiers, such as IP addresses, in its definition of “personal data”. It’s not that the position is now beyond doubt, it’s just that the nature of the question is changing …

 

Nigel Miller is a partner in the commerce & technology team at City law firm Fox Williams LLP and can be contacted at nmiller@foxwilliams.com

Facebook, WhatsApp and mission creep

Emma RoakeGerman regulators have slapped down WhatsApp’s move to share its users’ data with parent company Facebook, calling it an “infringement of national data protection law”.

Despite Facebook and WhatsApp publicly committing in 2014 (when Facebook bought WhatsApp) that users’ data would not be shared between the two companies, recent changes to WhatsApp’s terms and conditions have reversed this position.  The new terms and conditions state that user data (including the mobile number and device information of the WhatsApp user) will be shared with Facebook, including for targeted advertising purposes.  The terms and conditions automatically opt in users to the data-sharing arrangement.

However, in the last few days of September, the Hamburg data protection commissioner issued an administrative order which:

  • prohibits Facebook from collecting and storing the data of German WhatsApp users; and
  • compels Facebook to destroy any data which has already been collected from German WhatsApp users.

The Hamburg data protection commissioner has said that the WhatsApp user’s consent needs to be obtained to the data-sharing for it to be lawful, and this had not happened.

Facebook is appealing the decision.

The changes to WhatsApp’s terms and conditions have caused widespread controversy since being announced, and have caused concern with data regulators around the world.

The UK’s data protection regulator (the ICO) has announced that it is investigating the data-sharing on behalf of WhatsApp users in the UK.  Elizabeth Denham (the new information commissioner) commented in an interview with BBC’s Radio 4 that there was a “lot of anger” amongst the UK’s WhatsApp users.  Ms Denham also addressed the WhatsApp / Facebook data-sharing arrangement in her first speech as information commissioner on 29 September 2016, commenting that “all of this is about transparency and individual control”.

Transparency and trust were the central themes of Ms Denham’s first speech, where she explained that her fundamental objective as information commissioner was to build a culture of data confidence in the UK.  She noted her concern that an ICO survey from earlier in the year had shown that only 1 out of every 4 adults trust businesses with their personal data.

Ms Denham made clear that the ICO would pick and choose its investigations carefully, making sure that those investigations were relevant to the public.  Unsurprisingly, she said that technology “is already at the forefront” of most of the ICO’s major investigations.  For example, in addition to investigating the change in WhatsApp terms and conditions, the ICO has in the last few weeks asked questions about the major Yahoo data breach.

The ICO has indicated that it will be putting out an update soon on its WhatsApp/Facebook investigation.  It will be interesting to see whether the ICO follows the approach of the German regulators.

Emma Roake is a senior associate in the commerce & technology team at City law firm Fox Williams LLP and can be contacted at eroake@foxwilliams.com