DSAR ruling and other people’s data

June 2024

High Court judgement in Harrison vs Cameron case

A recent high court ruling concerning a Data Subject Access Request reveals some interesting points relating to how organisations comply with people’s right to know the identity of the recipients of their personal data, and how organisations apply the ‘third-party exemption’.

The right of access gives people the right to receive a copy of their own personal data, it doesn’t give them the right to receive personal data relating to others. However, often other people’s details are intertwined as part of the data retrieved.

In this particular case, the focus was on other people the requester’s data had been shared with, and whether the requester had the right to know the identity of these recipients.

The ‘third party exemption’ frequently comes up for debate when handling DSARs and this case sheds light on how this exemption should be applied.

In the ruling the Judge found that it’s necessary to apply a ‘balancing test’ when considering the third-party exemption. It was also acknowledged that the controller is the ‘primary decision maker’ when assessing whether it is reasonable or not to disclose personal data relating to others, and has a ‘wide margin of discretion’ in this decision.

Here’s some background to two of the key points of law in this case:

What’s the third-party exemption?

The third-party exemption is set out in the UK Data Protection Act 2018 and says organisations (controllers) do not have to comply with a DSAR, if in doing so this would mean disclosing information which identifies another individual. Organisations can disclose such information if the third party has given their consent, or if it’s reasonable to disclose without their consent.

What about the recipients of personal data?

Along with the right to receive a copy of their personal data, when an individual submits a DSAR they are also entitled to receive other supplementary information. This includes details of any ‘recipients’ or ‘categories of recipients’ the organisation has, or will, disclose their personal data to.

The Harrison vs Cameron case

Mr Harrison, Chief Executive of a real estate investment company was covertly recorded making threats to Mr Cameron, the owner of a gardening business. Here’s a summary of what happened next:

  • Mr Cameron shared the recording with some of his employees, members of his family and friends.
  • Mr Cameron sent the recording to twelve people in total, and it was then shared on to a further three people.
  • Mr Harrison claimed the recordings had been shared more widely and damaged his business.
  • Mr Harrison submitted a DSAR to Mr Cameron in a personal capacity (I’ll come back to this) and submitted similar requests to others, including employees at the gardening business. He demanded to know the identity of the people who’d received the recording.
  • Mr Cameron and others declined his request, and the case ended up in the High Court.

The Court decided Mr Cameron was not himself a controller of Mr Harrison’s data, and that he’d made the recordings in his capacity as a director of the gardening company. Therefore the company, not Mr Cameron was the controller and responsible for fulfilling the request.

According to the judge, a person’s rights extend to being provided with details of the specific recipients of their personal data, including the names of individuals who’ve received their data. The rationale behind this is to enable the individual to check the lawfulness of how their personal data is being handled. This is a potentially worrying development as organisations may have previously viewed this as an either provide the names of specific recipients, or provide just the categories of recipient. This ruling makes it clear this is the requester’s choice, not the controller’s decision.

However, in this case the judge found the gardening company could rely on the third-party exemption and not disclose the identity of the recipients. Why? None of the fifteen recipients consented to their names being disclosed to Mr Harrison, due in part to concerns this may expose them to abusive and threatening behaviour. Due to these safety concerns the judge ruled it would not be reasonable to disclose people’s names, without their consent.

Ultimately this ruling makes it clear it is the controller’s decision to make; is it reasonable or not to disclose information which identifies other people?

Third-party balancing test

The ICO’s Right of Access guidance provides helpful pointers on how to conduct a balancing test when considering the third-party exemption. There isn’t a blanket rule, a balanced decision is required on whether it’s appropriate in the circumstances to disclose information relating to others, or withhold it.

1. Can you redact or not provide?

Consider if it’s possible to comply with the request without revealing information that relates to, and identifies another individual. For example, can this third-party information be redacted, or can you separate out the requestor’s personal data?

Sometimes, even redacting other people’s names doesn’t render them unidentifiable. There may be situations where you can reasonably assume the requester will be able to work out whose name has been redacted.

2. Can you seek consent?

If you can get the consent of another individual to disclose their details, it’s a problem solved. I’ve been involved in cases where the consent of other employees has been sought in employee related requests and they’ve given it.

However, you’re not obliged to seek consent and it may not be appropriate to do so. You might not have contact details for the third-party, you might not want to share information with them, or let them know a particular individual has submitted a DSAR.

3. Reasonable to disclose without consent?

Where the information about other individuals if fairly innocuous and you can’t identify any negative impact on them, you may choose to disclose the information without consent. In assessing whether this is reasonable to do, you need to take account of:

  • the type of information you intend to disclose
  • whether it was possible to seek consent or not
  • whether consent was declined
  • any duty of confidentiality

Any potential repercussions for the third-party if their data is disclosed (or they are identifiable from what you provide) can be considered.  As this case shows concerns for a person’s safety can be justification for applying the third-party exemption.

I’ve worked on many cases where this has been debated, situations where redaction wouldn’t render the third-party unidentifiable and it wasn’t appropriate to seek consent. The context is crucial, sometimes it has been reasonable to disclose, other times we had justified concerns and chose to withhold.

It’s important to be clear with the requester about what you are giving them in your response to their DSAR. If you rely on the third-party exemption, you should tell them, and explain why. I’d also highly recommend documenting your decision-making just in case it’s challenged.