Home Office Data Subject Access Request: Part Two.

Back in May I wrote about the data subject access request I had submitted to the Home Office, and how they required a ‘written confirmation of likeness’ signed by a very particular list of people before providing any information. This is purportedly to verify your identity, but as I noted at the time, the requirements are stricter than those that the same organisation sets for processing passport applications. One may reasonably surmise that this could be an attempt to put people off from making these requests.

I am following up with this post to document what happened after I submitted the request, for those interested in the reach and limits of data protection law.

Objection to the Home Office’s disproportionate requirements

At the time, I objected to the unusually stringent verification requirements, as well as that these would not be accepted online. Extract below:

As you will be aware, data controllers are required to undertake ‘reasonable measures’ to verify the identity of the person making the Data Subject Access Request. I submit that by providing a copy of my passport, and the passport number, that this more than satisfies the legal requirement.

Further, I submit that since the list of those who are considered appropriate to provide this written confirmation is less extensive than those who can act as a counter-signatory for a passport application in the first place, that this requirement is demonstrably disproportionate, and as such not required to respond to my request.

The Home Office responded simply to reiterate that the verification must be done via post:

We require that you send in a copy of your ID via the post, please have your photographic ID certified and sent to us at the address below.

 [address omitted]

We request certified ID in this method for security to reduce the chances of fraudulent data requests.

‘To reduce the chances of fraudulent data requests’? Aye, right. They did not address my questions about inconsistency.

I responded to press them on this:

I understand that you are obliged to take ‘reasonable measures’ to verify the identity of the person making the subject access request. However,

1. I do not see how requiring this to come via the post makes any difference whatsoever.

2. The requirements for certification are far stricter in terms of who can make such a certification than those who can counter-sign a passport (https://www.gov.uk/countersigning-passport-applications). This is not ‘reasonable’, or ‘proportionate’ within the meaning of the relevant law.

I am prepared to send in a certified copy of my ID to verify my identity, but I reject the requirement to have the certification made by one of the following:

* a legal representative, registered with the Office for the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC)
* a solicitor, barrister or chartered legal executive
* a commissioner for oaths
* a registered charity

Instead, I ask you again to confirm that you will accept a ‘written confirmation of true likeness’ from someone on the same list that you accept for passport counter-signatories (detailed in the URL above).

If you refuse this, then your requirements would appear designed solely to prevent people from getting access to their data by implementing unreasonable stipulations, and I will be making a formal complaint to the ICO.

They did not respond to this, or my follow up e-mail a few weeks later, so on the 20th of June I reported them to the UK’s Information Commissioner (ICO).

ICO Complaint

Specifically, I drew attention to the inconsistency in the listed requirements for ID verification when it came to passport applications versus data subject access requests, and that it appeared that those that related to the latter were therefore disproportionate.

They replied in just over a week:

The DPA 1998 and DPA 2018 do not state what identification or verification data controllers may request. Data controllers must be satisfied as to the identity of the requester to ensure personal data is not inappropriately disclosed. This also helps prevent fraud. The ICO therefore reviews concerns regarding this matter on a case-by-case basis.

The ICO is satisfied that generally, the level of identification and verification requested by the HO for SARs is both reasonable and proportionate. This is because the HO must be certain of a requester’s identity before releasing any personal information.

In light of the above, we would advise that you provide the HO with the requested documents and verification of these documents to allow the organisation to process your SAR.

Basically, they just reiterated that data controllers have to take steps to verify the identify of those requesting data before processing a subject access request – choosing not to address the specific questions I had raised around proportionality.

I pressed them on this, and after about a month the ICO responded:

I understand that you are concerned about the level of identification requested by the Home Office for subject access requests, as it requires more identification for this than for passport applications.

As stated previously, this is not a matter that is of concern to the ICO at this time. I understand that it appears there is inconsistency within the Home Office in regards to identification requested. However, due to the nature of information held by the Home Office, it must satisfy itself as to the identity of a requester before disclosing personal data.

As it is not up to the ICO as to what the Home Office requests for different applications, and if you are concerned about inconsistencies within the Home Office, we suggest you raise this with the organisation.

I apologise the ICO can’t be of further assistance at this time. However, please note that the concerns you have raised will be kept on file. This will help us over time to build a picture of the Home Office’s information rights practices.

What this tells us

This process was informative as it demonstrates the barriers that organisations such as the Home Office will place in the way of those who seek to exercise their rights under data protection law. By making the process as difficult and cumbersome as possible, it locks out all but the most determined and able.

It also tells us a bit about the ICO’s role and reach in these cases: Namely, that it is extremely limited – at least when it comes to making assessments of proportionality. Rather than taking a holistic view of the data protection practices and requirements of an organisation, the ICO simply looks at each portion in isolation. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether the Home Office’s approach is entirely inconsistent, and demonstrates a clear lack of proportionality on any reasonable assessment of all the facts. The ICO only has to be satisfied that the requirements relating to a very narrow and immediate situation are proportionate, irrespective of the wider context.

This makes no sense except in the most literal of readings, and makes a mockery of the spirit of data protection legislation. We shouldn’t be too surprised that this is the approach of the Home Office though, given the appalling state of the UK’s immigration law.

I am currently debating whether or not to proceed with the formal ID verification process to see what they will provide once you get through the barriers. Watch this space.

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Issues with Article 17 (‘Right to be Forgotten’) of the GDPR

With the GDPR’s deadline now almost upon us, one of the most talked about provisions has been the ‘Right to Erasure’ contained within Article 17.

Significantly expanding the ‘Right to be Forgotten’ doctrine established in the Google Spain case, Article 17 allows data subjects (i.e. you and I) to submit takedown requests to any organisation that collects and controls information on them.

There are a number of grounds under which people may seek to have data deleted, which cover a broad variety of circumstances. These include situations where the data is no longer necessary for the reasons it was collected; where it was unlawfully processed; where the subject withdraws their consent; as well as some others. The right is not unlimited, with exceptions where the collection and processing of the data is necessary in the exercise of the right to freedom of expression; where there is a specific legal obligation to retain the information; for reasons of public interest; etc.

Issues with Article 17

Despite some initial reservations, the GDPR (and Article 17 in particular) has generally been lauded as a victory for European citizens, who will gain far more control over what information companies hold on them than they ever previously have had. This is especially true given the arguably extra-territorial applicability, where any organisation that handles European data will be expected to comply.

However, there are a few specific issues arising from the construction of Article 17 that bear some further scrutiny. Rather than analyse the philosophical criticisms of the Right to Erasure, below I briefly look at some of the practical considerations that will need to be taken by data controllers when they receive such a Request for Erasure:

  1. Verification.
  2. Abuse, and a lack of formal requirements for removal requests.
  3. Article 85: Freedom of expression.

Verification of the Data Subject

Before giving effect to an Article 17 request, the controller must use all ‘reasonable measures’ to identify the identity of the requesting party. It is perhaps obvious that an organisation should not be deleting the accounts or other data of somebody without checking first to make sure that the person making that request is authorised to do so. However, this leaves open a number of questions about what this kind of verification will look like. In other words, what steps will be considered ‘reasonable’ under the terms of the law? Will courts begin to see arguments over online platforms account recovery procedures as a result of a denial of access to the fundamental right of privacy via the GDPR? What metrics will a data subject be able/expected to provide in order to discover their associated data? i.e. while it might be easy to request information relating to your e-mail address, what about other identifiers such as IP addresses, or names? These are questions that do not have clear answers, and will inevitably lead to an uneven application of the law, dependent on the situation.

Abuse, and a Lack of Formal Procedural Requirements for Erasure Requests

It should be self-evident at this stage that any statutory removal mechanisms will be open to abuse by parties determined to have content removed from the Internet, and in that regard, Article 17 is no different. However, there is a common misconception that the Right to Erasure gives people the right to stop any mention of them online – especially speech that is critical of them, or that they disagree with. This is not the case, and Article 17 is not crafted as a dispute resolution mechanism for defamation claims (that would be the E-Commerce Directive). These facts don’t stop people from citing the GDPR incorrectly though, and it can quickly become difficult to deal with content removal demands as a result.

The problem is compounded by the fact that there are no formal procedural requirements for an Article 17 request to be valid, unlike the notice and takedown procedure of the DMCA, or even the ECD. Requests do not have to mention the GDPR, or even Right to be Erasure specifically, and perhaps even more surprisingly, the requests don’t have to be made in writing, as verbal expressions are acceptable.

While the reasons for the lack of specific notice requirements is clearly in order to give the maximum amount of protection to data subjects (the lack of requirement for writing was apparently in order to allow people to easily ask for the removal of their data from call centres over the phone), it seems to ignore the accompanying problems with such an approach. The lack of clarity for the general public around what exactly the Right to Erasure includes, along with the lack of procedural checks and balances means that it will be increasingly difficult for organisations to identify and give effect to legitimate notices. This is especially true for online platforms that already receive a high number of reports. While many of these are often nonsense or spam, they will require far greater scrutiny in order to ensure that they aren’t actually badly worded Article 17 requests that might lead to liability.

If we look at the statistics on other notice and takedown processes such as that in the DMCA (the WordPress.com transparency report, for example), we can see that the levels of incomplete or abusive notices received are high. The implementation of even basic formal requirements would provide some minimum level of quality control over the requests, and allow organisations identifiers to efficiently categorise and give effect to legitimate Article 17 requests, rather than the prospect of having to consider any kind of report received through the lens of the GDPR.

Article 85: Freedom of expression

As mentioned earlier, a controller is not obliged to remove data where its continued retention is ‘necessary for reasons of freedom of expression and information’. The obvious question then becomes under what grounds this should be interpreted, and we find some guidance in Article 85 of the GDPR. Unfortunately however, it doesn’t say all that much:

‘Member States shall by law reconcile the right to the protection of personal data pursuant to this Regulation with the right to freedom of expression and information, including processing for journalistic purposes and the purposes of academic, artistic or literary expression.’

This appears to leave the task of determining how the balance will be made to individual Member States. Whilst this isn’t unusual in European legislation, it means that the standard will vary depending on where the organisation is based, and or where the data subject resides. At the time of writing, it isn’t clear how different Member States will address this reconciliation. Despite freedom of expression’s status as a fundamental right in European law, it is afforded scant consideration, and thus weak protection under the GDPR, preferring to defer to national law, which simply isn’t good enough. Far stronger statements and guarantees should have been provided.

Over Compliance

Unfortunately, the amount of extra work required to analyse and deal with these requests as a result of the law’s construction – along with the high financial penalties detailed in Article 83 – mean that it is likely that many organisations will simply resort to removing data, even where there is no lawful basis for the request, or requirement for them to do so.

We may fairly confidently speculate that the response from many data controllers will be to take a conservative approach to the GDPR’s requirements, and thus be less likely to push back on any potentially dubious requests as a result. Insistent complainants may find that they are able to have speech silenced without any legitimate legal basis simply out of fear or misunderstanding on the part of third party organisations.

With a well publicised and generally misunderstood right to removal, lack of procedural requirements, and a reliance on intermediaries to protect our rights to freedom of expression, we may find ourselves with more control over our own data, but with far less control over how we impart and receive information online.

Header image by ‘portal gda‘ on Flickr. Used under CC BY NC-SA 2.0 license.