ICO confirms maximum £500,000 fine for Facebook

DataIQ News

Facebook has become only the second company ever to be hit with the maximum £500,000 fine for serious breaches of data protection law, after failing to convince the Information Commissioner’s Office that it had done nothing wrong.

The company was issued with "notice of intent" back in July as part of the ICO's wide ranging investigation into the use of data analytics for political purposes, and having considered representations from Facebook, the ICO has issued the fine and confirmed that the amount will remain unchanged. As part of the ongoing investigation, Emma's Diary was fined £140,000 in August  after it was found Experian Marketing Services had used personal information  - illegally gathered by the company - to build a prospect database.

Both fines were served under the Data Protection Act 1998. This was replaced in May by the Data Protection Act 2018, alongside the EU’s GDPR. These provide a range of new enforcement tools for the ICO, including maximum fines of £17 million or 4% of global turnover.

The ICO’s investigation into Facebook found that between 2007 and 2014, the company processed the personal information of users unfairly by allowing app developers access to their information without sufficiently clear and informed consent, and allowing access even if users had not downloaded the app, but were simply ‘friends’ with people who had.

Facebook also failed to keep the personal information secure because it failed to make suitable checks on apps and developers using its platform.

These failings meant one developer, Dr Aleksandr Kogan and his company GSR, harvested the Facebook data of up to 87 million people worldwide, without their knowledge. A subset of this data was later shared with other organisations, including SCL Group, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, which were involved in political campaigning in the US.

Even after the misuse of the data was discovered in December 2015, Facebook did not do enough to ensure those who continued to hold it had taken adequate and timely remedial action, including deletion. In the case of SCL Group, Facebook did not suspend the company from its platform until 2018.

The ICO found that the personal information of at least one million UK users was among the harvested data and consequently put at risk of further misuse.

Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said: “Facebook failed to sufficiently protect the privacy of its users before, during and after the unlawful processing of this data. A company of its size and expertise should have known better and it should have done better.

“We considered these contraventions to be so serious we imposed the maximum penalty under the previous legislation. The fine would inevitably have been significantly higher under GDPR. One of our main motivations for taking enforcement action is to drive meaningful change in how organisations handle people’s personal data.

“Our work is continuing. There are still bigger questions to be asked and broader conversations to be had about how technology and democracy interact and whether the legal, ethical and regulatory frameworks we have in place are adequate to protect the principles on which our society is based.”

The Facebook fine follows a £500,000 penalty issued to Equifax last month, for failing to protect the personal information of up to 15 million British citizens during its 2017 cyber attack.