ICO prosecutes company employees for unlawfully accessing client data
A former employee of Lex Autolease Ltd has been prosecuted and fined under section 55 of the Data Protection Act 1998. The employee illegally accessed personal data records of 551 customers of the Company which related to road traffic accidents. The employee accessed the records on his employer's computer and then emailed them to his private email address, which he then sold to a third party as personal leads.
Section 55 covers the unlawful obtaining, disclosing or procuring of personal data, which is a criminal offence. The ICO has warned that employees should “be aware that documents containing personal data they have produced or worked on belong to their employer and are not theirs to take with them when they leave.”
Currently the offence is punishable by way of a fine only, but the ICO continues to call for more effective deterrent sentences, including the threat of prison, to be available to the courts to stop the unlawful use of personal information.
The employee pleaded guilty to two charges under section 55 of the DPA at Manchester Magistrates' Court. He was fined £500 and ordered to pay prosecution costs of £364 and a £25 victim surcharge.
Employers should notify the ICO if they are concerned that an individual is misusing personal data, especially if those individuals have access to customer data or are moving to competitors. Informing the ICO will assist in the company avoiding any criticism for covering up or not taking proper action to remedy a data breach.
It is important that employees who have access to commercially sensitive information are employed on strict contractual terms. Such terms should include express confidentiality provisions applying during and after termination of employment and obligations to return all company property and information when leaving the company.
This case demonstrates that the consequences of an employee taking any confidential or customer information can be a criminal offence, in addition to any other consequences arising from a breach of their employment obligations. Whilst the threat of a criminal sentence may be a deterrent, employers should also have in place appropriate security measures supported by policies, procedures and well-trained staff in order to minimise the risk of personal data being compromised. These protections should not only seek to prevent confidential information being stolen in the first place, but also from being used subsequently.