The curious incident of the government minister in the park

Most Techblog readers will now no doubt be aware of this morning’s breaking news story involving government minister and Conservative Party manifesto drafter, Oliver Letwin.

Essentially, in what is quite a bizarre story, Mr Letwin was spotted disposing of “papers” in various bins around St James’s Park – stone’s thow from Downing Street and Whitehall.

Downing Street’s initial response was that the papers related to constituency business and weren’t “sensitive”. “Sensitive personal data” they may not be (we don’t yet know), but that doesn’t mean that the rules set out under the Data Protection Act do not apply – leaving personal information in public bins is very much frowned upon by the Information Commissioner.

The data protection principles
If the letter is from a constituent then it will contain personal data relating to that constituent and (potentially) matters personal to them, in respect of which he or she is seeking his or her MP’s assistance. As all good data protection lawyers know, the seventh principle says that “appropriate technical and organisational mesaures shall be taken against unauthorised or unlawful processing of personal data and against accidental loss or destruction of, or damage to, personal data.”

In this case, it’s difficult to see how disposing of papers in a public bin could constitute appropriate steps to ensure unauthorised access.

Personal liability
If the papers do relate to constituency business then Mr Letwin will be personally liable for any breaches of the DPA that have taken place. This is because he is the data controller – each MP is the data controller in respect of his or her constituency business (the ICO doesn’t allow you to deep-link to individual data controller notifications, but if you go here and search for registration number Z9233035 then you’ll find Mr Letwin’s notification).

As far as I’m aware, the ICO has not yet exercised its power to fine in relation to a non-corporate/public authority data controller. Given the prominence of this incident (until Mr Letwin’s cabinet colleague Liam Fox magnanimously knocked him off the top of the headlines), I will watch the Information Commissioner’s investigation with interest.

In the meantime, someone from the Cabinet Office may wish to attend to this.

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October 2011
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