By Ian Hulme, Director for Regulatory Assurance.

14 November 2019

Imagine if your medical records, information about your sex life or your political opinions were put into the public domain so anyone could see them.

When personal data is shared by mistake the effects can be extremely damaging.

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) recognises that some types of personal data are very sensitive and states that data controllers must give it extra protection.

This is known as special category data.

Special category data is information concerning a person’s:

  • health;
  • sex life or their sexual orientation;
  • racial or ethnic origin;
  • political opinions;
  • religious or philosophical beliefs; or
  • membership to a trade union.

Special category data under the GDPR is broadly similar to sensitive personal data under the Data Protection Act 1998. However, special category data also relates to genetic and biometric identification data.

Special category data is the most sensitive personal data a controller can process. The misuse of this data is likely to interfere with an individual’s fundamental rights and freedoms and could cause real harm and damage.

Due to the possible risks, the ICO expects controllers to take all necessary precautions to protect this data and we have published new guidance to help you do this.

What does our new guidance say about how organisations should approach processing special category data?

Firstly, as always, you must have a GDPR lawful basis to process data under Article 6. However, when processing special category data you also need an Article 9 condition for processing and potentially an associated DPA 2018 Schedule 1 condition.

Many of the DPA 2018 conditions require you to have an appropriate policy document in place. This is a short document that should outline your compliance measures and retention policies with respect to the data you are processing.

We have a template appropriate policy document in our guidance to help organisations

There is more to do when processing special category data, but the provisions are in place to help you protect the data of those whose information you hold, and increase their confidence in you. It’s worth taking the time to get it right.

Ian Hulme is Director for Regulatory Assurance at the ICO.