The times when one could say that the UK ICO was a fluffy, teethless regulator are over. Recently, the ICO has been going through its most prolific period of enforcement activity – by the end of 2012 it had imposed 25 fines, issued 3 enforcement notices, secured 6 prosecutions and obtained 31 undertakings and 2013 looks set to bring similar activities (in March for example the ICO issued its first monetary penalty for a serious breach of the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003 (‘PECR’) relating to live marketing calls – a £90,000 fine for Glasgow-based DM Design for unwanted marketing calls.
To coincide with such activities, the ICO has recently updated the enforcement section of its website. What this tells us is that whilst data security breaches will continue to be a significant area of focus for the ICO, PECR breaches will also figure highly in the ICO’s enforcement agenda. In this regard, the ICO tell us that it has already been active in the areas of ‘spam texts’, sales calls and cookies.
Spam texts are identified as ‘one of the biggest concerns to consumers’ (the ICO refers to texts about accident and ‘PPI’ claims, in particular) and refers to the work it has carried out with members of the mobile phone industry in order to identify an organisation which is now the subject of enforcement action. The ICO also identifes ‘Live’ Sales Calls and ‘Automated Calls’ as other areas of priority, and have explicitly identified (and published) the names of a number of companies where they have either met to discuss compliance issues; or indeed are in the process of activeley monitoring ‘concerns’ about compliance with a view to considering enforcement action. This is not only related to UK-based companies, but also those based overseas who are targeting UK-based consumers. The ICO tell us that they are actively working with the FTC in the US and with other regulators based in Ireland, Belgium and Spain through Consumer Protection Co-operation arrangements.
Finally the ICO tells us that between January and March 2013 it received a further 87 reported concerns via its website from individuals about cookies (many less than the amount of concerns about unwanted marketing communications from individuals, it has to be said). The ICO will continue to focus on those websites that are doing nothing to raise awareness of cookies or obtain users’ consent, and also on those sites they receive complaints about or are ‘visited most by consumers’. However the ICO also say that they have ‘maintained a consumer threat level of ‘low’ in this area due to the low level of concerns reported’.
It is obvious that as consumer technologies such as tablets and smart-phones continue to develop, so too will the ICO’s enforcement strategy in this area. Compliance with PECR should therefore also figure highly on any business’s data protection compliance strategy.