The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has been fined £200,000 by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) after sending a bulk email that identified possible victims of non-recent child sexual abuse.

The Inquiry, set up in 2014 to investigate the extent to which institutions failed to protect children from sexual abuse, did not keep confidential and sensitive personal information secure. This is a breach of the Data Protection Act 1998.

On 27 February 2017, an IICSA staff member sent a blind carbon copy (bcc) email to 90 Inquiry participants telling them about a public hearing. After noticing an error in the email, a correction was sent but email addresses were entered into the ‘to’ field, instead of the ‘bcc’ field by mistake.

This allowed the recipients to see each other’s email addresses, identifying them as possible victims of child sexual abuse.                                   

Fifty-two of the email addresses contained the full names of the participants or had a full name label attached.

The Inquiry was alerted to the breach by a recipient of the email who entered two further email addresses into the ‘to’ field before clicking on ‘Reply All’.

The Inquiry then sent three emails asking the recipients to delete the original email and not to circulate further. One of these emails generated 39 ‘Reply All’ emails.

ICO Director of Investigations, Steve Eckersley, said:

“This incident placed vulnerable people at risk, which is concerning. IICSA should and could have done more to ensure this did not happen.

“People’s email addresses can be searched via social networks and search engines, so the risk that they could be identified was significant.”

The ICO investigation found:

  • The Inquiry failed to use an email account that could send a separate email to each participant;
  • The Inquiry failed to provide staff with any (or any adequate) guidance or training on the importance of double checking that the participant’s email addresses were entered into the ‘bcc’ field;
  • The Inquiry hired an IT company to manage the mailing list and relied on advice from the company that it would prevent individuals from replying to the entire list;
  • In July 2017 a recipient clicked on ‘Reply All’ in response to an email from the Inquiry, via the mailing list, and revealed their email to the entire list;
  • The Inquiry breached their own privacy notice by sharing participants’ emails addresses with the IT company without their consent.

The Inquiry and the ICO received 22 complaints about the security breach, and one complainant told the ICO he was “very distressed” by the security breach. IICSA has since apologised to the affected individuals.

The case was dealt with under the provisions and maximum penalties of the Data Protection Act 1998, and not the 2018 Act which has replaced it, because of the date of the breach.

Notes to Editors

  1. The Information Commissioner’s Office upholds information rights in the public interest, promoting openness by public bodies and data privacy for individuals.
  2. The ICO has specific responsibilities set out in the Data Protection Act 2018, the Freedom of Information Act 2000, Environmental Information Regulations 2004 and Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003.
  3. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a new law which applies in the UK from 25 May 2018. Its provisions are included in the Data Protection Act 2018. The Act also includes measures related to wider data protection reforms in areas not covered by GDPR, such as law enforcement and security. The UK’s decision to leave the EU will not affect the commencement of the GDPR.
  4. The ICO can take action to change the behaviour of organisations and individuals that collect, use and keep personal information. This includes criminal prosecution, non-criminal enforcement and audit. The ICO has the power under the Data Protection Act 2018 to impose a civil monetary penalty on a data controller of up to £17million (20m Euro) or 4% of global turnover. Under the 1998 Act, the maximum financial penalty is £500,000.
  5. Under the GDPR, the data protection principles set out the main responsibilities for organisations. Article 5 of the GDPR requires that personal data shall be:
    • Processed lawfully, fairly and in a transparent manner in relation to individuals;
    • Collected for specified, explicit and legitimate purposes and not further processed in a manner that is incompatible with those purposes;
    • Adequate, relevant and limited to what is necessary in relation to the purposes for which they are processed;
    • Accurate and, where necessary, kept up to date;
    • Kept in a form which permits identification of data subjects for no longer than is necessary; and
    • Processed using appropriate technical or organisational measures in a manner that ensures appropriate security of the personal data.

      Article 5(2) requires that “the controller shall be responsible for, and be able to demonstrate, compliance with the principles.”
  6. A limited number of civil and criminal enforcement cases – including this case - are still being dealt with under the provisions of the Data Protection Act 1998 because of the date the breach of the legislation occurred. The maximum penalty in those cases is £500,000.
  7. Civil Monetary Penalties (CMPs) are subject to a right of appeal to the (First-tier Tribunal) General Regulatory Chamber against the imposition of the monetary penalty and/or the amount of the penalty specified in the monetary penalty notice.
  8. Any monetary penalty is paid into the Treasury’s Consolidated Fund and is not kept by ICO.
  9. To report a concern to the ICO telephone our helpline 0303 123 1113 or go to ico.org.uk/concerns.