Striking a balance in Data Protection Sanctions

It was reported yesterday that the Irish Government has issued a “discussion paper” on the proposed administrative sanctions under the new Data Protection Regulation.

EDRI has criticised the proposals with reference to the “warning/dialogue/enforcement” approach taken by the Irish DPC. Billy Hawkes has, in the past, been at pains to clarify that the Irish DPC uses dialogue to encourage compliance and also seeks to encourage organisations to raise questions and issues with the DPC to avoid breaches. There is a belief that the “brand impact” of even being spoken to by the DPC about an issue can prompt “road to Damascus” conversions in organisations.

That is all well and good, but my experience working with organisations is that this can result in management playing a game of “mental discounting” (I’ve written about this before in response to the original draft DP Regulation). If there is a perception that the probability of an actual penalty is low, there is little leverage in appealing to intrinsic motivation of a business manager when his extrinsic drivers for behaviour are pushing the decision towards a “suck it and see” approach.

Having re-read the discussion paper and EDRI’s response to it I can’t help feel that EDRI may be over-stating the “ask” that is being made here a small bit. They cite it as the “destruction of the right to privacy”, citing the Irish DPC’s own experiences with the Garda Pulse system which has been plagued by reports of breaches in Data Protection since its introduction, despite the Gardaí having a statutory Code of Practice for Data Protection. In 2010 the DPC reported that that Code of Practice was not being implemented in the Gardaí.

However, this says as much to to me about the attitude to Data Protection in some (but not all) parts of the Irish Public Service then it does about the merits of the Data Protection Commissioner’s approach to encouraging compliance or the specifics of anything that might be discussed on foot of this discussion paper. Furthermore it raises questions for me about the capability and resources that the Data Protection Commissioner has to execute their function effectively in Ireland, and even suggests that there may be informal barriers to the effective operation of their function in the public sector which need to be urgently considered (given that the Office of the DPC is supposed to be independent).

Given the extent of the negative findings in the interim report on the 2012 audit of the PULSE system I personally would hope that there would be some level of penalty for the Garda Siochana for failing to follow their own code of practice. But that is a different issue to what the Discussion paper actually raises.

What is being discussed (and what would I like them to consider?)

The Discussion Paper that was circulated invites Ministers at an Informal Council meeting to consider (amongst other things):

  1. If wider provision should be made for warnings or reprimands, making fines optional or at least conditional upon a prior warning or reprimand;
  2. if supervisory authorities should be permitted to take other mitigating factors, such as adherence to an approved code of conduct or a privacy seal or mark, in to account when determining sanctions.

It flags the fact that the Regulation, as drafted, allows for no discretion in terms of the levying of a penalty. What is proposed here in the discussion is a discussion of whether warnings or the making of fines optional would be the mechanism to go to rather than scaring the bejesus out of people with massive fines. This in itself doesn’t kill the right to Privacy, but it does potentially create the environment where the fundamental Right to Privacy will die, starved of any oxygen of effective enforcement.

Bluntly – when faced with a toothless framework of warnings and vague threats, businesses and public sector bodies will (and currently do) play a game of mental discounting where the bottom line impact (in terms of making money or achieving a particular goal) outweigh the other needs and requirements of society. So an organisation may choose to obtain information unfairly or process it for an undisclosed secondary purpose because it will hit its target in this quarter and the potential monetary impact won’t emerge for many more months or years, after an iterative cycle of warnings. The big penalty will be seen as something “far away” that can be worried about later. After everyone’s got their bonuses or their promotions etc.

If strict statutory liability is the model that is being proposed, and the discussion is to look at watering it down to a stern talking to as a matter of formal policy in the Regulation, I must despair of the wingnuts in my government who even thought that would be a good idea to even suggest this. But I do agree that tying the hands of the Regulators to the big ticket monetary penalties might not work in their interests or in the interests of encouraging compliance with the legislation.

What is needed is a middle ground. A mechanism whereby organisations can make errors of judgement and be warned, but that the warning will have some sanction with it. The sanction needs to be non-negotiable. But it needs to be transparent and obvious that this is what will happen if you ignore DP rules. It needs to be easily enforced and managed. There should be a right of appeal, but appealing the non-negotiable fixed-penalty should carry with it the risk of greater penalties. And the ability of an organisation to benefit from iterative small penalties should be removed if they are a recidivist offender.

There is a system that operates like this in most EU countries – it is the Penalty Points system for motoring offences. Hopefully the discussion will move to looking at how a similar system might be implemented for Data Protection offences. The penalties could be tiered (e.g. no cookies notification – €150 fine and 2 points on first offence, €500 and 4 points on second, failure to document processing €500 fine on first offence and 6 points). The points could be cumulative, with the “optionality” of higher sanctions being removed if you were, for example, an organisation with 100 points against you (congratulations, you’ve failed to up your game and now you are being prosecuted for the full tariff). Organisations bidding for public sector contracts could be required to have a “Data Protection Points” score below a certain level.

This system could be devised in a way that would take account of mitigating factors. If a code of practice was entered in to, and was successfully audited against by an appropriate body, then points could be removed from the “scorecard” at the end of a 12 month period. If there were mitigating factors, a lower level category of offence might actually apply (I’ll admit I’m not sure how that might work in practice and need to think it through myself a little). Perhaps self-notification to the DPC, engagement in codes of practice, mitigating factors or actions etc. would carry a “bonus points” element which could be used to off-set the points total being carried by a Data Controller (e.g. “adopted code of practice and passed audit: minus 3 points, introduced training and has demonstrated improved staff knowledge: minus 3 points).

Certain categories of breach might be exempt from mitigation, and certain categories of offence, just like with motoring offences, might be a permanent black mark on the organisation’s Data Protection record (e.g.: Failure to engage with DPC in an investigation, failing to take actions on foot of an audit/investigation).

The scheme could be administered at an EU level by the EDPB, with the points accumulated by organisations operating in multiple member states either being cumulative or averaged based on a standardised list of key offences. Member States could be free to add additional offences to this list locally, within the spirit and intent of the Regulation.

That would be an innovative idea, based on a model that has been proven to have an influence on compliance behaviour in motoring. And it would provide a transparent mechanism that would ensure that warnings could be given, advice could be sought, and positive engagement could be entered into by Micro Enterprises, SMEs, and large corporates. It would provide a relatively low impact mechanism for levying and collecting penalties from organisations who are in breach (penalties could potentially be collected as part of annual tax returns as a debt owed to the State), and it could be used to reward organisations who are taking positive actions (“bonus points”).

Finally, it would give the basis of a transparent scorecard for organisations seeking to evaluate data processors or other service providers (in the same way as Insurance providers use penalty points data for motoring to assess driver risk), and it would give a clear escalation path to the full sanctions in the Regulation (e.g. 100 points and you go straight to full penalties).

What it does not give is a death spiral of warnings that don’t amount to penalty and as a result give a platform for organisations to ignore the Right to Privacy. It is an evolution of the conciliatory approach to encouraging compliance but one that is given teeth in a manner that can be transparent, easily explained, and standardised across the EU27.

I’ve written about this in 2010 and 2012. Maybe the time is right for it to be discussed?

Call the Tweet Police (a slight return)

An opinion piece by Joe Humphreys in the Irish Times on the 9th of January (which I can link to here thanks to the great work of McGarr Solicitors) discusses anonymous comment on-line. In doing so he presents an argument that would appear to suggest that persons taking a nom de plume in debate are in some way sinister and not trustworthy.

He suggests three actions that can be taken to challenge “trolling”. I’ve previously addressed this topic on this blog (27th December 2012 and previously) I thought I’d examine each of Mr Humphrey’s suggestions in turn and provide agreement or counter argument as appropriate.

1. Publicly condemn it. Overall I agree with this. However who or what should be condemned? The pseudonymous comment or the pseudonymous commenter? Should you ‘play the man or the ball’, to borrow a metaphor from sports? The answer is that, in an open society the correct course of action is to either ignore the argument or join the argument. Anything else leads to a downward spiral of tit-for-tat trolling and abuse, one of the very behaviours that has sections of our body politic and mainstream media crying “Down with this sort of thing!”

2. “Develop ways of discriminating against it… … by technology that helps to authenticate people’s identities”. In my blog post of the 27th of December I address this under the heading of “Bad Idea #1”. The concept of identity is incredibly fluid. As Mr Humphreys appears fond of citing scientists and philosophers, I’m sure he is familiar with Descarte’s writings on the existentialist concepts of identity.

The idea of an “identity register” is one that raises significant technical, philosophical, and legal issues. South Korea has recently abandoned their attempts to impose a “Real Names” policy on the use of social media due to these issues, and “Real Name” policies in social media have been criticised on Data Protection grounds in Europe. In China, where a “real names” policy is in place for social media, people use fake ID to register and the Chinese government has failed to get a significant majority of internet users to comply with their law.

Describing anonymity as a “market failure” to be fixed by enforced identification equates identity with a tradable commodity. This is, ironically, the business model of Facebook, which Mr Humphreys describes as “an invention of Orwellian proportions”.

3. “Challenge the anonymous to explain why they are hiding themselves. I’ve yet to hear a good excuse…” In my post of the 27th of December I link to an excellent resource (the GeekFeminism Wiki) which lists a number of reasons why people might not be able to use their real names in on-line comment. Time taken to research this: 30 seconds on Google. They include: survivors of abuse, whistleblowers, law enforcement personnel, and union activists.

The implication made by Mr Humphreys that people choose to comment anonymously because they don’t want their employer to know they are on social media all day is disingenuous to say the least and belies a biased view of those of us who are active users of modern technologies for communication, discussion, and debate.

Finally, history has a litany of examples of people who, for various reasons have used pen names to hide themselves. From Leslie Charles Bowyer-Yin (Leslie Charteris, author of The Saint) to Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain), to Francois-Marie Arouet (Voltaire), to Eric Blair (George Orwell) there is a tradition of, in the words of preparing “a face to meet the faces that you meet” (to borrow a line from T.S Eliot) for a variety of reasons. See for more examples.

Calling The Tweet Police

[updated 2012-12-27@17:11 to reflect comments from TJ McIntyre] [edited introductory paragraphs at 20:34 2012-12-27 reflecting feedback from Aoife below, fair comment made and responded to] [Note: This has been posted today because RTE are doing a thing about “social media regulation” which means that levers are being pulled that need to be red flagged] I drafted this post on Christmas Eve morning 2012. The original post had the introduction below. One person (out of the 600+ who have read this post by now, a few hours after I posted it) felt that the opening was too hyperbolic. Perhaps it was, so I decided to tweak it. I did hope I wouldn’t have to publish the piece I’d drafted. But the fact that the opening item on the 6pm news on the 27th of December 2012 was a piece about the Chairman of the Dáil communications committee announcing that the committee would meet in the New Year to discuss regulating ‘Social Media’ meant that my misgivings about the approach of the Irish political classes to the use of Social Media were not entirely misplaced. I’m writing this on Christmas Eve morning 2012. I dearly hope I never have to publish it. If I do it will be because the Government I helped elect will have abandoned any pretence of being a constitutional democracy and will have instead revealed its true insular, isolated, clientelist nature in a manner that will disgust and appal people. And this will be all the more disturbing as the Government will have used real personal tragedies to justify this abandonment of principles. But I am not hopeful. If this post sees the light of day something will have gone horribly wrong with the Irish Body Politick. That the content of the media coverage today echoed the expectation I set out in the paragraphs below for the rationale of any review of regulation (“cyber bullying” and other misuses/abuses of social media) suggests that, perhaps, this post might contribute a useful counterpoint to a perspective that appears to dominate the mainstream.

The Issue

I fully expect within the early weeks of 2013 for the Irish Government to propose regulations requiring that users of social media be required to tweet or blog in an identifiable way. No more anonymous tweets, no more anonymous blogs. The stated reason will be to “combat cyber bullying”. Sean Sherlock TD is quoted in today’s Irish Times (2012/12/24) calling for action on anonymous posting. This is ominous. Others quoted in that article are calling for “support systems” to help TDs deal with the “venom” being targeted at them via social media. While the support systems suggested are to be welcomed, the categorisation of expressions of opinion by citizens as “venom” is, at best, unhelpful and, at worst, disingenuous. What seems to be in pipeline to be proposed to stem this tide is almost inevitably going to be some form of requirement that people verify their identity in some way in blog posts or tweets. Remove the veil of anonymity, the reasoning will go, and this venom will go away. The “keyboard warriors” will put their weapons beyond use and step in line with the process of government and being governed. The fact that politicians are lumping Facebook in with these other platforms illustrates the tenuous grasp many have on the facts – Facebook already requires “real identity”  policy, which raises problems about what your real identity is and has been flagged as potentially in breach of EU law by at least one German Data Protection Authority.

Why this is a bad idea

In Orwell’s 1984 a shadowy figure of the State ultimately breaks the protagonist Smith, requiring him to give up on love and private intimacy and resubmit to a surveillance culture in which the Thought Police monitor the populace and the media tells everyone it is necessary to protect against the “enemy”. That shadowy figure is called O’Brien. My passion for data privacy is a reaction to my namesake, and from that perspective I can see three reasons why this is A VERY BAD IDEA.

Bad Idea Reason #1  – What is Identity?

Requiring people to post comments, write blogs, or tweet under their own identity creates a clear and public link between the public persona and the private individual. The supporters of any such proposal will argue that this is a deterrent to people making harsh or abusive comments. However, in a fair society that respects fundamental rights, it is important to think through who else might be impacted by a “real names” policy. There are quite a number of examples of this, the most famous recent example being Salman Rushdie having his Facebook account suspended because it didn’t think he was him. Identity is a complex and multifaceted thing. We all, to borrow a phrase from T.S Eliot, “prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet”. The GeekFeminism Wiki has an excellent list of scenarios where your “real name” might not be the name you are really known by. In Ireland, people who would be affected by a “real names” policy in social comment would include:

  • Public servants who cannot comment publicly on government policy but may be affected by it
  • Survivors of abuse
  • People with mental health concerns or problems
  • Whistleblowers
  • Celebrities.

A real names policy would require that every time Bono tweets or blogs about Ireland, Irishness, or Irish Government policies he would have to do it under the name Paul David Hewson. And who the heck would be interested in an opinion expressed by Paul Crossan about epilepsy?

Bad Idea Reason #2 – How will it work exactly?

It is one thing to say that you want people to post comments using their identity, but it is another thing entirely to get a system in place that actually works. Identity is a “flexible” thing, as outlined above. Facebook require evidence of your identity in the form of personal ID (passport/driver’s license). They have the resources to process that data securely. But they still get it wrong (see the Salman Rushdie example cited above). If verifiable identities are required for comment, then how exactly would a small personal blog that is used to exercise my mental muscles outside of my work persona (domestic use) be expected to handle the overhead of verifying the identity of commenters in a verifiable way. Would I be expected to get people to register with the blog and provide evidence of ID? Would I be able to get a grant to help implement secure processes to obtain and process copies of passports and drivers licenses? Or will the State just require that I shut up shop? Would the State indemnify me if this blog was compromised and data held on it about the identity of others was stolen? Every few years we used to hear similar calls about the registration of mobile phones. The argument in favour of registration usually goes: “If they have to register, bad people won’t use these phones”.  That argument is bunkum. I’ve written about it at length here but the short form:

  1. If people have to register and provide ID for verification, they will use fake ID (as is happening in China with their mobile phone registration requirement)
  2. If the law is to register, strangely it is unlikely that that would bother criminals by definition they find the law an inconvenience rather than a barrier.
  3. If people are required to register without some form of identity verification then you’ll wind up with Mr D. Duck of  The Pond owning a lot of phones. A pseudonym, so no more identifiable than a picture of an egg.

Applying this to a proposal for a “real names” policy for tweets, blogs, comments and other social media discourse and we wind up with a situation where, to achieve the objective that the proposers of non-anonymised comment seem to be seeking, would result in a disproportionate burden being placed on those of us who engage in debate on-line. Even then it would not be fool proof. And a non-verified identity is nothing more than another pseudonym. I could, for example, use the name of another person when “registering” to comment. Or a fictional duck. It is worth noting that South Korea is abandoning its “Real Names” policy for social media for a variety of reasons.

Bad Idea Reason #3  –  The logical principle must be technology neutral

Blogging, tweeting, social media… these are all technologies for self-expression and social interaction that barely existed five years ago and where unheard in the mainstream of a decade ago. Therefore any regulation that requires identification of commenters must be framed in such a way as to anticipate new technologies or new applications of existing technology or risk near instant obsolescence. Therefore the regulation would need to be technology neutral. Which means that, in order to avoid it being discriminatory and to ensure it has the fullest possible effect, it would need to be applicable to other forms of technology.

When debating this on Twitter with Harry McGee on the 22nd December I asked him if he saw a difference between Twitter and a malicious phone call or an anonymous pamphlet. His response was they were, in his opinion, the same. So, if tweets are the same as anonymous pamphlets, the logical extension of needing to be able to identify the tweeter is a need to be able to identify the pamphleteer. The State would want to be able to identify the author of a published thought. We have seen this before. In fact, the seeing of it before is one of the reasons that the EU has a right to personal Data Privacy (introduced in the Lisbon Treaty) and why the strictest interpretations of Data Protection laws in Europe tend to be in Germany and former Soviet bloc countries. Have we managed to forget that, within the lifetime of people now in their mid thirties, governments in Eastern Europe required people to register their typewriters with the State so the State could identify the writers of letters, plays, pamphlets and other communications? As Mikko Hypponen of F-Secure (one of the world’s leading experts on information security) says in one of his many presentations:

In the 1980s in the communist Eastern Germany, if you owned a typewriter, you had to register it with the government. You had to register a sample sheet of text out of the typewriter. And this was done so the government could track where text was coming from. If they found a paper which had the wrong kind of thought, they could track down who created that thought. And we in the West couldn’t understand how anybody could do this, how much this would restrict freedom of speech. We would never do that in our own countries. But today in 2011, if you go and buy a color laser printer from any major laser printer manufacturer and print a page, that page will end up having slight yellow dots printed on every single page in a pattern which makes the page unique to you and to your printer. This is happening to us today. And nobody seems to be making a fuss about it. And this is an example of the ways that our own governments are using technology against us, the citizens.

So, if we can uniquely identify the typewriter or the printer shouldn’t we take the logical step and have the owner register it, just like in communist East Germany in the 1980s? So that when a pamphlet or letter is sent that has the wrong kind of thought the relevant authorities can take action and immediately stop that kind of thing. But sure, we’d never do that in our own country. We’d just ask everyone register their identity before blogging or tweeting. Totally different. The Government would never propose the creation of a register of printer owners. Would they? {update: here’s an article from outlining their take (from the US) on why “real name” policies and regulation are a bad idea }

Use the laws we have, don’t create crazy new ones

But something must be done!! This is an intolerable thing, this “cyberbullying”. And indeed it is. But let’s not get hung up on the label. It is not “cyberbullying”. That is bullying by a fictional race from the TV show Dr. Who.

What this is is inappropriate and/or malicious use of communications networks and technologies. It is no different from a smear poster campaign, a co-ordinated letter writing campaign, or a malicious calling campaign. And there are already laws a-plenty to combat this in a manner that is proportionate with the curtailment of freedoms of speech and rights to privacy. Bluntly: If your conduct on-line amounts to a criminal act or defamation it is almost inevitable that your illusion of privacy will evaporate once the blow-torch of appropriate and existing laws are applied.

The power to pierce privacy in this case comes from the pursuit of a criminal investigation of what are deemed under the Communications (Retention of Data) Act 2011 as serious offences. Any social media provider will provide information about users where a serious offence is being investigated. It’s in their terms and conditions (see Twitter’s here – Section 8). This would allow the identification of the IP address used at a date and time for transmitting a message via twitter and could be used to compel a telecommunications provider to provide the name of the account holder and/or the location of the device at the time and at present. But it is done under a clear system of checks and balances. And it would be focussed just on the people who had done a bold thing that was complained about, not placing a burden on society as a whole just in case someone might do something naughty. I would ask the Government to use the laws we already have. Update them. Join them up. Standardise and future proof their application. But do so in a technology neutral way that isn’t swiping at flies while ignoring larger concerns. And please don’t mandate non-anonymised comment – it simply doesn’t work.

The Risk

When proposing any course of action it is advisable to prepare for the unintended consequence. With this chatter of requiring comment to be identifiable comes the risk that, should it happen, the social media data of Irish citizens will become either more valuable (because marketers will be able to mine the “big data” more efficiently) or less valuable (because we switch off and there is less data to meaningfully mine). There is also the risk that our Government will, yet again, send a signal to the world that it just doesn’t understand On-Line, for all its bleating about a “Knowledge Economy”. And at that point we may become less attractive to the foreign new media firms who are setting up base here. Like Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.


Requiring identifiable comment is a dumb move and a silly non-solution to a non-problem. The problem is not anonymity. The problem is actually how we evolve our laws and culture to embrace new communication channels. We have always had anonymous comment or pseudonymous dispute. Satire thrives on it, art embraces it, and literature often lives through it. Just because every genius, wit, and idiot now has a printing press with a global reach does not mean we need to lock down the printing presses. It didn’t work in Stasi East Germany or other Soviet Bloc dictatorships. Other solutions, such as working the laws we already have, are preferable and are more likely to work. Educating users of social media that there are still social standards of acceptable behaviour is also a key part of the solution.

Tagging the typewriters is NEVER the answer in a democracy. This O Brien stands firmly against this particular Thought Crime.

Europe v Facebook–a lesson in clarity

I was on the news this afternoon. The radio. So the world was spared my visage. My words were quick in response to rapid fire questions about why Europe v Facebook had announced they were suing Facebook in Ireland and their comments about the Irish Data Protection Commissioner.

To put some clarity on my comments (which I believe were reasonably balanced) I thought I’d write a short post here in my personal rant zone. Note I am not a lawyer but am renowned for my Matlock impressions.

Europe v Facebook are suing?

That’s nice. Who are they suing? Why?

Well, it would seem they want to sue Facebook in Irish Courts for breaches of the Data Protection Acts. That’s nice. Section 7 of the Data Protection Acts allows for the Data Subject to sue for specific breaches of the Acts – the Duty of Care is contained in Section 7 and the Standard of Care is effectively Section 2 (and given the level of specificity that Accuracy as a test is defined with the recent Dublin Bus v DPC case would suggest that a strict interpretation would be applied by the Courts as to what the standard would be).

But that is not Europe v Facebook suing. That’s a single punter. Or a series of single punters. Individually. Because we (as Europe v Facebook acknowledge) don’t have Class Actions here in Ireland. So each person rolls the dice and takes their chances in an area of law with little jurisprudence or precedent behind it in Ireland. Oh. And it would likely be a case taken at Circuit Court level unless the individuals wanted to risk large costs if they lost.

Of course, Europe v Facebook could take a case against the State to the ECJ on the basis that the State hasn’t properly implemented the Directive. But as we basically photocopied it in a hurry that might be a long shot. The ECJ tends not to get directly involved in telling Member States how to spend money, particularly when the rest of the EU machinery is trying to get us to spend less money. But it is an option.

Europe v Facebook itself can’t sue under Section 7. No duty of care is owed under the Data Protection Acts to a body corporate.

What it could do is appeal a decision taken by the Data Protection Commissioner on foot of one of the 22 complaints the organisation has submitted. But apparently Europe v Facebook won’t state clearly what the specific complaint is so that a decision can be taken or what specific complaints they require decisions to be taken on, ergo there can be no decision from the DPC and ergo there is nothing to appeal against.

But suing under Section 7 is entirely separate to any DPC investigation (just as suing someone for personal injuries arising from an assault is separate to a criminal investigation of assault). Just as the DPC Audit is a separate process from any investigation of a complaint.

Why the focus on Ireland and the Irish DPC?

Well Facebook have decided that, for a variety of reasons to set up shop in Ireland. (Europe v Facebook seem obsessed with tax breaks but there are other reasons multinationals come to Ireland. The scenery. The nice people. The multilingual skill sets, the cluster effect of other companies).

In setting up Facebook Ireland Ltd Facebook also decided that, for any Facebook User outside of the US and Canada, Ireland would be the country and legislative framework and enforcement framework they would comply with.

So the Irish DPC became responsible for policing the activities of Facebook globally.

Hence Europe v Facebook are dealing with them.

Dealing with the DPC

Europe v Facebook are making some odd demands. They want the evidence from the investigation of their complaints before they will decide to proceed with their complaints. Nuts.

That’s like asking the gardaí for the Book of Evidence before deciding if you will press charges against a thief. Lets ignore the fact that the ‘evidence’ might contain personal data of other individuals or may include commercially sensitive information or other confidential information.  If Europe v Facebook believe they have valid complaints they should specify which ones they want to move to a decision on and then take the process on.

Personally and commercially I have found the DPC to be both a pleasure and a frustration to engage with. But the process is straight forward. Pissing around like a spoiled teenager is frankly, in my opinion, just a waste of the limited time and resources of the DPC.

Europe v Facebook have highlighted that they have the support of German Data Protection Authorities. For balance it is worth pointing out that they have the public support of one of FIFTEEN German Data Protection Authorities, not counting the Federal Data Protection Authority for Germany.

It’s a bit like having the backing of Carlow County Council on a matter of Foreign Affairs policy. Great to have it but not conclusive until the Feds (who represent Germany at the A29 Working Group) back the position. Yes it is important and needs to be noted and considered, but it is not in and of itself decisive.

Time and Resources

The audit of Facebook and subsequent reviews have taken up over 25% of the resources of the Office of the DPC. External technical support was resourced from UCD Campus company pro bono. Europe v Facebook’s press release say they couldn’t find the company. They didn’t look very hard. All the details about the company and the qualifications of the person doing the work were in the first Audit Report.

Europe v Facebook does have a point though: the DPC has no “legally qualified” people. Now, that’s an interesting phrase. Do they mean qualified solicitor or barrister entered into the Roll of the relevant professional society here, or do they mean someone with a legal qualification (such as a BBLS degree) who has not gone on to qualify. Frankly if it is the latter I’m quids in… I’ve a legal qualification and I’m a recognised expert internationally on Data Governance practices.

They point out that the DPC is faced with armies of lawyers when dealing with companies. No shit. A policeman. Having to deal with lawyers. Who’d a thought it? The implication is that they are outclassed in the legal skillz department. And guess what… they are. And they will be forever. For the simple reason that the salary scale of a civil servant wouldn’t match that of the hired guns on retainer. The smarter people go where the money is. Just as the Attorney General and the DPP and Revenue and other high-skill arms of Government lose skilled resources to the private sector so to would the DPC. I would be surprised if they haven’t already lost members of staff to law firms.

And frankly the focus on a tick box skill set is narrow minded in my view. Hiring people who understand how businesses use data, the kinds of technology that are there, the actual best practices in Governance etc. is equally if not more important to driving compliance.

The Upshot

Max Schrems, the law student behind Europe v Facebook, will likely sue Facebook in Ireland. Likely at the Circuit Court level. The DPC will likely be called to give evidence, and they will submit the Audit Report. Facebook will probably be asked in discovery to provide information about their communications with the DPC.

Europe v Facebook will do diddly squat, given they have no standing in the case. They might float a case up to the European Court re the effectiveness of the implementation of the Directive and the adequacy of resourcing and skills of the DPC. But the Directive is largely silent on those questions (as is the Regulation). Beyond that they can and will do nothing until they piss or get off the pot and tell the DPC what complaints they want decisions on. Then they are free to appeal the decisions.

The real upshot is that this kerfuffle and the commentary surrounding it should focus attention on the resourcing, training, skills, qualifications, and competence of the Data Protection Commissioner’s office. They are diligent hard working servants of the public who could probably benefit from upskilling in a variety of areas either through hiring or training. They could also do with more resources, but the focus needs to be on brains not bodies.

The continuing failure of the Courts to properly apply the criminal sanctions in the Acts should also be looked at. Having cases struck out as it is a “first offence” is feck all use when the DPC engagement model is to only prosecute after a second or third occurrence of an offence. I would consider the need for written judgements in DP cases to be important. I would also consider the need for a published archive of Enforcement notices and penalties, similar to the publications from the ICO in the UK, to be a useful step forward.

I wish Europe v Facebook luck in their endeavours. A binding precedent on Data Protection compliance would be nice. But they would do well to remember that the Audit and the investigation of their complaints are two different processes and they need to engage with their process to bring the investigation leg to a close.

Only by specifying the complaints they require a decision on can Europe v Facebook conclude the criminal investigation, either through findings they agree with or an appeal that is upheld.

The potential for legal action by a Data Subject under Section 7 is interesting and has already lead to a number of key cases moving their way through the Irish Courts System at the moment. It would be a valuable contribution to Data Protection law here and elsewhere in Europe. But I can’t help but feel that the better approach would have been to engage positively with the Irish DPC and work towards clarity rather than calling the independence of the DPC into question and being confrontational.

But maybe we are all just pixie heads.

The Anti-Choice Robodialler–some thoughts

The Intro

Robodialling, autodialling, power dialling. Call it what you will. It is the use of computers and computer telephony integration to save the tired fingers of call centre workers and turn the job into a battery farm of talk… pause.. talk.

I know. I’ve worked with them. Heck, I designed the backend data management and reporting processes for one of the first big installations of one in Ireland back in the late 1990s. It was fun.

I also learned a lot about how they work and some of the technical limitations and capabilities of them. Such as the lag that can happen when there is no agent available to take a call so the person dialled hears noise and static. Or the fact that you can trigger the dump of a recorded message either as a broadcast or based on the machine’s interpretation of whether it’s hit an answering machine or not (at least on the snazzy RoboDial9000 we were putting in).

And I also remember the grizzled CRM and Direct Marketing consultant who was helping advise on best practice for using it telling the management team:

“Don’t. For the love of all that is sacred don’t. Doing that shit just gets our industry a really bad name because it freaks people out.”

Today – Fallout and penalties

Today I’m trying to reengage brain after a night on twitter helping to advise people how to register their complaints about the use of a Robodialler to push anti-choice messages to unsuspecting households. The DPC is now getting up to 3 complaints every 5 minutes on this.

Each complaint could carry a €5000 penalty on summary conviction. That is the tricky bit as this requires evidence gathering etc. This could take time. But the DPC has time available to them to conduct investigations and bring prosecutions. And if it is a case that this is an individual acting on their own behalf, the DPC has the powers to enter domestic premises to conduct searches and can levy a significant personal penalty of up to €50,000.

Oh.. and if the dialler is in the UK the maximum penalty per offence is £500k and the DPC and ICO do talk to each other. A lot. They’re co-hosting an event in Newry at the end of the month.

The unintended consequences

My thoughts now turn to the unexpected consequences this robodialling will have.

  1. All future market research or polling that may be done on this topic by phone is borked and broken. People will be suspicious, even when the nice man from the polling agency ticks all the boxes and explains who they are etc.
  2. There will be a wave of “false positive” complaints to the DPC arising from any phone polling on this topic (for the reason outlined above). This will tax the resources of the DPC, and will tax the resources of market research and polling organisations as they work to deal with complaints and investigations etc.

The impact of this on debate is that the published results of any polling will be distorted and will be potentially unreliable as barometers of public opinion. Face to face field work results will likely be less tainted by the robodialler experience but will be a LOT more expensive and time consuming for media and other organisations to run. So there may be less of them.

The dialler incident will tie up resources in the ODPC that would otherwise be spent dealing with the wide range of complaints they get every day, driving investigations, conducting audits, and managing the large number of existing open cases they are working through.

22 staff. In total. 25% of their staff regularly being tied up dealing with Facebook alone. With a mandate that covers ANY non-domestic processing of personal data. (by comparison the Financial Services Regulatory Authority has three times the number of staff at Director level alone).

Another consequence of this is that we might get a little debate about how this is no different from the placard waving and leaflet shoving of the Anti-choice camp historically. But it is different. Disturbingly different. If I am walking on the street with my daughter and a leaflet or picture is thrust in her face, I can turn away, walk another route, or some other strategy to help shield my daughter from disturbing imagery.

Last night I read of parents whose small children or young tweenagers answered the call and listened and have been upset by the calls.

The wrap up

I worked in a telemarketing business early in my career. Even then (nearly 2 decades ago) we were cautious about ringing people in the evenings. It is an invasion of the private family time of individuals, an abrupt interruption of what Louis Brandeis called “the right to be left alone”. No recorded messages were left. Human interaction was key to ensuring we only continued to encroach where welcomed, and requests to be removed from lists were treated respectfully. “Do Not Call in Evenings” was a call outcome code in the robodialler that prevented that number ever being called again (at least in theory when the software worked correctly and the teams did their jobs right).

To tread on that right to be left alone to ram a pre-recorded message into the ears of an unsuspecting and unidentified audience belies an arrogance and ignorance on the part of those who thought it would be a good idea to choose to commit a criminal offence to push their message, ignoring both the law and the choices people had made with respect to their own personal data privacy (a fundamental right of all EU citizens).


If you have received a call from a robodialler with an automated message or where the caller did not identify themselves to you you should register a complaint with the Data Protection Commissioner

Investigations can be complex and it may be impossible to verify who to prosecute, but by registering the complaint you can help build the case against people who are acting illegally.

Try to find the number that called you (in your phone’s call log). Note the date and time of the call. If the number is blocked, include that fact in your complaint. While numbers are blocked from being presented to you, the phone network will still know who called you and having the date and time you received the call will potentially enable ComReg and the Data Protection Commissioner to request data from the telecommunications companies to trace calling numbers. They may subsequently require you to give consent to accessing your phone records as part of their investigation but only to identify the number that phoned you on that date/time from the network call logs that are generated.

Olympic betting scandal and Data Protection

An Irish athlete is under investigation less than 24hrs into the Olympics arising from allegations that they, in effect, bet against themselves.

An anonymous source became aware of the pattern of betting and notified the authorities.

This blog post is being written to help media commentators avoid either putting their feet in it or wasting the scarce time of the Data Protection Commissioner raising spurious enquiries about whether the disclosure of the data in this was legal.

Bluntly – you don’t want to come out swinging against the bookies if they were acting correctly as you’ll look like a fool. And, if they were in the wrong, you don’t want to throw the Data Protection Act around like snuff at a wake as there’s enough bullshit out there about what it is and what it does to fertilise the Rose Gardens in St Anne’s Park until doomsday.

First things first: we need to bone up on some of the law governing gambling, specifically section 11 of the Gaming and Lotteries Act 1956. That legislation makes it an offence to cheat.

11.—Every person who by any fraud or cheat in promoting or operating or assisting in promoting or operating or in providing facilities for any game or in acting as banker for those who play or in playing at, or in wagering on the event of, any game, sport, pastime or exercise wins from any other person or causes or procures any person to win from another anything capable of being stolen shall be deemed guilty of obtaining such thing from such other person by a false pretence, with intent to defraud, within the meaning of section 10 of the Criminal Justice Act, 1951 (No. 2 of 1951), and on conviction shall be punished accordingly.

That is important as Section 8 of the Data Protection Acts permits the disclosure of personal data where necessary to allow the prevention, detection, or investigation of a crime. In this case cheating.

Note: I’m not saying that any cheating actually took place here, just that circumstances appear to exist which seem to require investigation of the possibility of such cheating.

As winning bets were drawn down that might fit the bill under the Gaming Acts.

I always advise clients to have at least two lawful processing conditions to rely on. In this case the bookmakers could probably argue the “Legitimate Interest” grounds… It is in their interest to red flag potential cheating in the placing of bets or rigging of events. And the remedy to that would be to alert the appropriate body who would in turn have a legitimate interest in ensuring the propriety of the Games.

Of course, the complicating factor is that the information was sent to the OCI from an “anonymous email”. If the sender was an employee of the bookmakers then, if they had permission from their employer to alert the OCI then that might be an allowable disclosure. But if they aren’t an employee (for example if they work with the police and came into possession of information relating to an investigation) or didn’t have permission to disclose the details of the athlete then that could be a breach of the Data Protection Acts.

So. Before we start chasing hares that aren’t there, let’s all step back and remember what the law actually is here. Far more important to focus on google and their ‘factual inexactitude’ on street view and the paltry resources of our DPC.

Thus endeth the rant

Describe what you do in one word…

This is a challenge an old boss of mine used to set. He was an alpha male. The answer he was looking for was usually a variant of “lead” like “inspire”, “command” or “drink”.

But it is a good exercise to set yourself.

This evening I was responding to an retweet of an article I published on my company website last year. Vish Agashe retweeted this post about data modelling and Data Protection. In response I asked him if he was still finding the ramblings of a legodatapsychoeconotechnoqualitatrian interesting.

Then it hit me. That’s a word. A bloody good word. A “kicking my dad’s arse in scrabble” kind of word. Because it almost perfectly describes me.


No. I am not made of plastic and if you separate my legs from my body you will find it very difficult to reattach them.

But I spent four years half a life time ago studying law and business in UCD. From that study I developed a love of law and all things legal. In particular I developed the skills of legal interpretation and research that all lawyers need to possess.

And, just as (if not more) importantly I developed a network of friends who are lawyers. Yes. Some of my best friends are lawyers. Who’d a thunk it?


No. I am not an android with a positronic brain and the strength of 10 men (I wish). And if you poke me in the back between the shoulder blades I’m more likely to turn around and put you in a painful joint lock or punch you in the face than calmly power down and go lifeless (hint: if you want that, a few bottles of good wine is the best option).

But I am obsessed with data. The capturing and creation of it, the analysis of it, the value of it. It’s what I do. I’m a Data Scientist, but in the “lives in a castle in the mountains and don’t ask about the missing corpses” sense of “scientist” (at least at times).


No. I don’t own a run down motel and I haven’t hacked a young lady to death in the shower. At least not since the dried frog pills kicked in.

However I have been a closet psychologist for years. And once I realised that closets had very few hidden secrets (if you discount fantastical lands ruled by big lions) I turned my attention to the Human Equation in the context of change management and how we perceive and value information.

So, BF Skinner was a lovely man who pigeons experimented on to see just how far would he go to have them support his flawed hypothesis that extrinsic reward/punishment is a key motivator of behaviour. At least that’s my opinion.


Last time I checked I’m not a gas guzzling American mini-van that is anything but economical to run. But, linked to my love of data and the interfaculty degree I did in law and business, I am a fan of economics and economic theory and practice. In particular I’m an advocate of the branch of economics that applies economic principles to the study of law and legal principles, and the application of economic principles to the valuation of and management of data.

What is the value at risk?

Where is the economic equilibrium of risk and reward/supply and demand?

Is the economic deal fair when Entity A gives data to Entity B… what is the valuable consideration given for the exchange of assets?


No. I don’t play annoying 9000 beats per minute europop techno. Except for Saturdays. And even then only when there is a total eclipse of the moon.

But I do enjoy my technology and my tools. I was the first customer in the world for Informatica’s Data Quality offering (back before it was Informatica). And I’ve coded countless Visual Basic skunkworks to do data reformatting, consolidation, reporting etc. And I do like Sharepoint and Drupal and WordPress and Unix and Linux and…..

…  I think you get the picture. I know a few things about databases and database technology. But unfortunately not with a parchment attached to it (yet).


it’s all about quality. Quality of outcomes for the end customer in a value chain. And quality of outcomes for the data controller, or the regulator, or society. Everything comes down to this.

  • Laws exist to regulate outcomes. Often badly
  • How we internalise and conceptualise the customer and the outcome are key to achieiving the right balance.
  • Technology is a tool to getting us there but is not a destination.
  • The economic value is the point at which things are good enough to achieve the outcome that is required… and no more… anything beyond that is a value-add luxury that we can charge premium price for.

Now. Where’s my scrabble board?

Why Apple’s iOS6 changes mean increased work for Irish Data Protection Commissioner

At Apple’s WWDC conference this week nerds, fanbois and developers were greet by the news that Apple will be shipping iOS6 later in the autumn (or “fall” for non European readers). Among the features that Apple is touting are:

  1. Ditching Google Maps for its own mapping product and GPS tools
  2. More deeply integrating Facebook with iOS, similar to the deep integration with twitter that emerged in iOS5.

I personally have some privacy concerns about this level of integration and the potential for Apple to become even more the “Big Brother” they so eloquently mocked in their 1984 TV advert.


By ‘baking in’ an application (Apple Maps) that will likely require me to disclose my location to Apple in order to work (and which at first glance appears to be less useful than Google Maps), I’m getting a less good deal on which to base the sharing of my personal data. And Apple aren’t giving me a map for the good of my health or because they want me to know where I am.

Location data is part of the “Big Data” gold rush. Traditionally it has been mobile telcos who have access to this data and can analyse it to determine a variety of offerings for customers (next time you get a “pleasantly surprising” SMS message telling you about a special offer in the coffee shop you just happen to be near, congratulations, you’ll have walked within range of a ‘geo-fence’ that will have triggered the SMS. Assuming of course you opted-in to that kind of thing. Like that voucher service you signed up to).

Google tracks you as well when you used Google Maps on your iphone. But, in the absence of a Google login that tracking is relatively anonymous, going down at most to being able to identify that a particular device was in a particular location (unless you’re logged into a Google service on your device, in which case rest assured Google is probably making associations on the fly).

Apple on the other hand can also link your location to your phone. And your phone is registered to you. Through iTunes. So Apple will potentially have access to a more granular level of data about who is where, when, who is near them, who they are contacting (iMessage makes your SMS free to another iPhone user… congratulations, Apple now knows who you are messaging). Apple knows what kind of music you like, what movies you rent, your demographic segment… (it’s the iTunes platform!)

By adding maps to the mix in the iOS/iTunes platform, Apple can also tap information about you in motion – where you are travelling from, to, how fast and can probably make assumptions about your mode of transport (moving fast, not on a road, in a relatively straight line… means you’re probably on a train. Well done, Apple now knows you are probably a user of public transport).

As CNET reporter Rafe Needleman writes:

…the more users you have running your geolocation software, the more data you have about how fast people are moving. Apple’s adoption of its own mapping platform means it will now get access to that data from its iPhone users, assuming (and it’s a big assumption) that Apple can hurdle the privacy issues over gathering that data.

And as Apple’s European HQ is based in Cork, it will be the Irish Data Protection Commissioner who will be in the vanguard of haggling with Apple with regard to the nature of the terms and conditions and controls that will be placed on the processing of the valuable and very identifiable personal data in question.


I use Facebook. I have a Facebook profile. I am a believer in Sun Tzu’s mantra that one must know your enemy.

By tightly integrating Facebook with iOS6 Apple potentially gets access to a valuable array of data about who you know, your interests, etc. Facebook get an easier to manage interface and a more ‘baked in’ and reflexive sharing of content and information by Facebook users.

And the individual gets another avenue by which personal data by and about them may wind up in places they were not expecting or being used in ways they didn’t anticipate.

Later this month Facebook will be facing into the return visit of the Irish Data Protection Commissioner who made relatively negative findings in their audit report earlier this year (but not as negative as many may have hoped). As the integration with iOS was not in the scope of their original review, I suspect it will not be on the table for discussion (at least not formally).

But again it is the Irish Data Protection Commissioner who is in the vanguard of protecting the fundamental rights to Data Privacy which are enshrined in EU law and which Facebook, through it’s terms and conditions, extends to Facebook users everywhere outside of the US and Canada.

And it means Apple don’t have to waste any more time and effort trying to put the bounce into Ping. They will have effectively outsourced that to Facebook. So Apple wins something. Facebook wins something. Where is the consumer’s win (and is it big enough to balance the impact on privacy).

Evolving the Platform

Any minute now I expect my friend Phil Simon to fire out a blog post about how Apple’s ditching of Google and locking in and locking down of Facebook represents a platform strategy play in The Age of the Platform. Apple is simply adding more “planks” to its platform, pushing out a competitor platform and reducing the incentive for another platform to start competing in devices (or at least minimising the impact of any such competition by leveraging the critical mass of the iOS/iTunes platform).

But to stretch and mangle Phil’s Platform analogy to the nth degree, any form of large scale construction requires permits and clearance and needs to balance the utility and convenience of what is being built (whether it is a shopping mall or a social media data sucking behemoth) with the impediments it may cause to the rights and enjoyments of individuals.

And the “Building Control Inspector” in this case will more than likely be the Irish Data Protection Commissioner.

  • With less than 22 full time staff
  • A budget of less than €1.5million

I fear that the back-end complexity of Apple’s move to front-end simplicity may be a killer blow to the efficiency and effectiveness of the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner, which is already creaking under the strain.

Given the influx of DataSuck Platform companies in to Ireland (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Apple –admittedly here for years, Zynga etc.) the Irish Data Protection Commissioner is rapidly becoming the “Local Sheriff” in the Wild West of ‘Big Data’ exploitation for more than just the 4.5 Million people living on our little island.


An open letter to Viviane Reding

Dear Commissioner Reding,

I’m writing to you as an EU Citizen who is passionate about data, is use, its quality, and its protection. I’m not writing to you as the Managing Director of a company that offers Data Protection training and consulting services, but in the interests of transparency I think it best to disclose that that is my day job.

I am writing to you about the new Data Protection Regulation. In particular I’m writing to you about the penalties contained in the current draft proposal. Frankly I think they suck. I don’t think they’ll have the effect that you think they will have. I’m basing my opinion on a number of bases:

  1. I have worked in Regulatory Operations in a Regulated industry that you are familar with, telecommunications.
  2. I’m a keen student of human psychology and economics, particularly the psychology and economics of risk and reward.Understanding this “theory of psychology” is important in the world of Information Quality.
  3. I like to observe and learn from other industries and areas of life to see what can be applied to improving quality systems for and the governance of information.
  4. I’m the parent of a toddler. This might not appear immediately relevant but, in the context of Data Protection, my immediate experiences dealing with a stubborn personality in development who is programmed to push boundaries and infuriate me with apparent disregard for the standard of behaviour expected of her all too often find their parallels in the management teams and staff of organisations I’ve worked with.

Taking these elements together I am afraid that 5% of Global turnover will not work as a penalty. It’s a great soundbite but will, in practical terms, amount to little more. There are a few reasons for this.

Continue reading

Newspaper Licensing Ireland–a return

The last post was a little long and analytical. Having reread the great post on I thought I’d reframe my Data Protection take on this in terms that might be more familiar.

Personal Data is being processed via your website without an appropriate Privacy Statement and without any communication of the purposes for that processing. Furthermore, the failure to have such a privacy statement on your site which references the use of Google Analytics is a breach of Section 8 of the terms and conditions that apply to Google Analytics. Failure to obtain consent for the use of the cookies written by Google for the purposes of Google Analytics is a breach of SI336.

You are breaking the law; you risk exposing your company to investigation and prosecution, with financial penalties and brand damage ensuing. Processing personal data without it being obtained fairly for a lawful purpose, and writing 3rd party cookies without consent is illegal and breaches a fundamental Human Right in the European Union.

What do you think?

I may be over egging it a little. I need a cup of tea now and a good sit down.