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.

Advertisements

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

Take Subject Access Requests Seriously

Daniel Geller
Daniel Geller

The ICO’s recent fine for a data breach at a GP surgery in Hertfordshire was the direct result of a subject access request (“SAR”) that had gone wrong.

The surgery revealed confidential details about a patient to an estranged ex-partner because there were insufficient systems in place for staff to deal with SARs.

Subject access is a fundamental right of individuals under the Data Protection Act, enabling individuals to find out what personal data you hold about them, why you hold it and who you share it with is fundamental to good information-handling practice. This right, commonly known as subject access, is set out in section 7 of the DPA. Individuals may exercise the right by making a written subject access request, or SAR.

Aside from a £40,000 fine this case caused huge damage to the organisation’s reputation. Such a significant and high profile data breach could have been avoided had suitable internal measures been put in place.  No matter the size of the organisation, if you hold personal data, most organisations will have to respond to a SAR at some point.

Dealing with SARs involving third party data

As evidenced by the GP surgery, responding to a SAR may involve providing information that relates both to the requester and another individual.  Under the DPA you will not have to comply with the SAR if to do so would mean disclosing information about another individual who can be identified from that information except where:

  1. the other individual has consented to the disclosure; or
  2. it is reasonable in all the circumstances to comply with the request without that individual’s consent.

So, although you may sometimes be able to disclose information relating to a third party, you need to decide whether it is appropriate to do so in each case. This decision will involve balancing the data subject’s right of access against the other individual’s rights in respect of their own personal data. If the other person consents to you disclosing the information about them, then it would be unreasonable not to do so. However, if there is no such consent, you must decide whether to disclose the information anyway. You should make decisions about disclosing third-party information on a case-by-case basis. It is not advisable to apply a blanket policy of withholding it.

For the avoidance of doubt, you cannot refuse to provide subject access to personal data about an individual simply because you obtained that data from a third party. The rules about third party data apply only to personal data which includes both information about the individual who is the subject of the request and information about someone else.

ICO figures show that 46% of all complaints made to the ICO last year were about SARs and the difficulties people face when trying to get hold of their personal information.  This is a substantial figure and highlights that – however inconvenient – SARs should not be taken lightly by companies.

It is important to make sure staff are equipped to deal with SARs. The ICO has provided some helpful guidance as to best practice with dealing with SARs, alternatively for more information on this subject feel free to contact a member of the Fox Williams idatalaw team.

 

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