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Council fined £145k for disclosing sensitive personal data about alleged gang members

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has fined the London Borough of Newham £145,000 for disclosing the personal information of more than 200 people who featured on the ‘Gangs Matrix’ police intelligence database.

The purpose of the database is to record information in respect of alleged gang members.

An ICO investigation found that on 26 January 2017, a Newham Council employee sent an email to 44 recipients that contained both redacted and unredacted versions of the Gangs Matrix. These had previously been sent to the council by the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) as part of its work with partners to tackle gang violence.

The 44 recipients included the council’s Youth Offending Team as well as external organisations, including a voluntary agency, that work together to respond to gang-related crime.

As a result of the breach, information was shared relating to 203 people, the ICO said. This included dates of birth, home addresses, and information on whether they were a prolific firearms offender or knife carrier, as well as their alleged associated gang.

The ICO investigation found that between May and September 2017, rival gang members had obtained photographs of this information via the social media platform Snapchat.

The Gangs Matrix featured in the photographs was the unredacted version that had been disclosed by Newham Council to partners in January 2017. 

In 2017, the Borough of Newham experienced a number of incidents of serious gang violence. Victims of the violence included people who featured on the inappropriately shared Gangs Matrix, the ICO said.

The watchdog added: “It is not possible to say whether there was a causal connection between any individual incidents of violence and the data breach. However, the ICO does highlight the significant harm and distress that can be caused when this type of sensitive personal information is not kept secure.”

James Dipple-Johnstone, Deputy Commissioner, said: “We recognise there is a national concern about violent gang crime and the importance of tackling it. We also recognise the challenges of public authorities in doing this. Appropriate sharing of information has its part to play in this challenge but it must be done lawfully and safely.

“Our investigation concluded that it was unnecessary, unfair and excessive for Newham Council to have shared the unredacted database with a large number of people and organisations, when a redacted version was readily available. The risks associated with such a transfer of sensitive information should have been obvious.”

The investigation also found that Newham Council did not report the data breach to the ICO. Whilst the council did conduct their own internal investigation, it did not start until December 2017, “a significant time after they became aware of the breach”, the watchdog said.

Additionally, the ICO found that the council did not have any specific sharing agreements, policy or guidance in place to determine how its own staff and partner organisations should handle and use the Gangs Matrix databases securely.

A copy of the monetary penalty notice can be found here.

​​Newham Council said it accepted that the inadvertent distribution of the unredacted matrix was a serious administrative error. “The council accepts the gravity of the breach and deeply regrets that it happened.”

It added: “The council notes that the Commissioner’s report concludes there has been no causal connection between the distribution of the unredacted information and any incident of violence involving young people subsequent to the breach taking place.

In response to the ICO’s criticisms about the failure to report the breach and the delay in launching an investigation, the council said it had been concerned about the risk of interfering with a police investigation which was then ongoing.

Newham said it had made changes to the management and processing of personal data to comply with data protection regulations and lessons learned from the serious data breach. “This includes reviewing procedures and data sharing agreements, carrying out data impact risk assessments, the use of secure mail, mandatory training for all staff, and an independent audit of compliance with data protection law.”

Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz said: “On behalf of Newham Council I accept the seriousness of the unredacted gangs matrix list being distributed on this single occasion in January 2017 and am sorry that it happened. While there were information sharing protocols in place at the time, clearly they could have been better. The Information Commissioner has recognised that the breach was not deliberate and we welcome that.

“Since becoming Mayor in May last year I have been embedding an enhanced culture of safeguarding across the organisation and this includes the internal control of sensitive safeguarding data in line with ICO requirements and new data protection regimes.

“The council is committed to working with our trusted multi-agency partners to make Newham a child-centred borough where young people can feel safe and protected. The findings of the Commissioner further underlines my commitment to that.”

The investigation into Newham was part of a wider inquiry into the use of the Gangs Matrix by the MPS. The ICO issued an enforcement notice to the MPS in November 2018, compelling them to make changes to the Matrix so it complies with data protection laws, including providing better arrangements for sharing the Matrix with partner agencies. A wider investigation into police use of Matrix type databases continues.

Dipple-Johnstone added: “This is a reminder for organisations handling and sharing sensitive information to make sure they have suitable processes, training and governance in place to ensure they meet their accountability obligations.

“Data protection is not a barrier for information sharing but it needs to be compliant with the law. One of the ways in doing this is by conducting data protection assessments. We have a data sharing code which provides guidance on how to share data safely and proportionately, and we will soon be publishing an updated code.

“Ultimately, personal information must be processed lawfully, fairly, proportionately and securely, so the community can have confidence that their information is being used in an appropriate way.”

Due to the timing of the data breach, the fine was issued under the previous legislation, the Data Protection Act 1998, and not the General Data Protection Regulation and 2018 Act that replaced it last year.