New Rules, Old Principles

This was first posted on the Irish Computer Society Data Protection Blog. I am republishing it here as it is my original work and I am putting all my Data Protection musings in one place.

So, the revised e-Privacy Directive has been given legal effect as of 1st July (only a little over a month late). The Data Protection Commissioner has issued revised guidance on the processing of personal data in the context of electronic communications. Some of what is contained in this legislation is new. However, even the new stuff is merely an incremental evolution of the underlying principles of Data Protection to address the privacy concerns presented by new technologies, the maturing of existing technologies, and the emergence of new ways of processing personal data.

The key to ensuring compliance with these revised rules is to ensure that you have a solid understanding of the underlying principles of Data Protection and the role of information in your organisation (it’s meaning and purpose) so that you can better understand how the actions of your staff and the systems you use to interact with your customers might affect your ability to work within the regulations.

An earlier post discussed the likely impact on Cookies from the regulations. In short, you need to understand when, where, how, and why your websites and mobile device apps are writing data to your customer’s “subscriber equipment” [aka the device that is at the end of the telecommunications service connection, be that a physical phone line, wifi, 3G, GPRS, HSPDA etc.]. Once you know that information you can figure out what data storage requires consent and what data storage is essential to the delivery of the information age service.

Another interesting and subtle change is that the Commissioner has removed the ‘grey area’ around collecting email addresses in business networking or similar activities. Before there was an assumption of “one bite free” where you could contact people once but give them the option to opt out of future contact. This is now very categorically an opt-in thing where you are sending emails to an identifiable natural person, particularly where that person is not party to a customer relationship.

You can still avail of the “free bite of the apple” when dealing with non-individually identifiable business entities, and with individuals in organisationswho might reasonably be interested in the product, service, or subject matter of the message.

A worked example might help explain this better.

  • Frank is a sales man for BloggoTech. At a trade fair he meets Jerry, who is a purchasing manager from ClientCo, who BloggoTech have an existing relationship with.
  • Frank also meets Mary, a marketing manager from ProspectCo. Neither Mary nor ProspectCo are clients of Bloggotech.
  • Jerry gives Frank an email address to contact him at:
  • Frank also has ClientCo’s general contact email address:
  • Mary gives Frank her business card with email, phone, SMS etc.
  • The business card also has “” as a general contact email address.

Frank can contact Jerry by any contact point he has for him (subject to Jerry making his preferences known) because ClientCo are an existing client who have purchased within the last 12 months. As soon as Jerry asks Frank to stop contact him by whatever contact mechanisms or for whatever purposes, Frank must do so.

Mary, however, poses a problem in light of the revised guidance. If Frank has not gotten her permission to do a follow up contact with her then the only email address he can use is the “” email, unless he is communicating with Mary about something that he knows will be of interest to her. Of course, he has the option of sending a fax for her attention (which the company can opt out of), or posting her materials by snail mail (which she can opt out of).

This relates to the fundamental principle that personal data must be obtained fairly, for a specified and lawful purpose.

Many people might protest that requiring people at conferences to get consent before doing a follow up contact is unduly burdensome but it is actually quite simple. When handing over your business cards, simply ask “Is it OK if I drop you an email later in the week with some information about [insert subject matter here] and a link to our newsletter sign up?”. This simple conversation point clarifies that you will be contact the person, and clarifies the context in which you will be communicating with them.

There.. consent obtained.

The real challenge is presented to event organisers who might share lists of delegates at an event with other attendees. Care must be taken to remove any means of electronic contact. But most large data management events I attend provide heavily redacted delegate lists that identify the person and the company, and perhaps their country, but not enough that you could contact them directly from it. So, event organisers need to start thinking about contact information as valuable data which should not be shared.

I’ve had experience with a business networking event sharing my details willy-nilly in an attachment sent to the other 100+ people who had registered for the event (which would be a notifiable disclosure under the Data Breach Code of Practice). The problem could have been prevented by simply having an opt-in box telling me that my details could be shared if I wanted them to be.

In short… designing privacy into the process, not inspecting breaches out.

Companies exhibiting at events need to up their game away from the “business card fishbowl” with a spurious raffle to collate contact details. Again, a little thought can help design a safer and more compliant process (a tick box for consent to further contact for purposes not related to the raffle for example, or clarification that anyone entering the raffle will receive one marketing email). After all, if the guidance from the DPC is that the communication needs to be relevant to the interests of the Data Subject, I might only want to receive communications from the company about the iPad I’ve won.

The new rules are built on old principles. If you understand the principles and take them to heart you can begin to develop strategies for using the new rules to your advantage.