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Case Studies

Transgender charity fined for data breach

A transgender charity has been fined £25,000 by the UK data protection watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). The regulator received a data breach report from the charity about an internal email group it set up and used from August 2016 until July 2017 when it was decommissioned. The charity only became aware of the breach in June 2019.

The ICO found that the group was created with insufficiently secure settings, leading to about 780 pages of confidential emails being viewable online for nearly three years. This led to personal information, such as names and email addresses, of 550 people being searchable online. The personal data of 24 of those people was sensitive as it revealed how the person was coping and feeling, with a further 15 classified as special category data as mental and physical health and sexual orientation were exposed.

The ICO found Mermaids should have applied restricted access to its email group and could have considered pseudonymisation or encryption to add an extra layer of protection to the personal data it held. Under the UK GDPR (general data protection regulation), organisations that are responsible for personal data must ensure they have the appropriate technical and organisational measures in place to ensure personal data is secure.

Steve Eckersley, ICO Director of Investigations said: “The very nature of Mermaids’ work should have compelled the charity to impose stringent safeguards to protect the often vulnerable people it works with. Its failure to do so subjected the very people it was trying to help to potential damage and distress and possible prejudice, harassment or abuse.

“As an established charity, Mermaids should have known the importance of keeping personal data secure and, whilst we acknowledge the important work that charities undertake, they cannot be exempt from the law.”

The ICO found that Mermaids had a negligent approach towards data protection with inadequate policies and a lack of training for staff. It says that given the UK GDPR came into force in 2018, besides the wider discussion around gender identity, the charity should have re-visited its policies and procedures to ensure appropriate measures were in place to protect people’s privacy rights.

The ICO added that Mermaids cooperated fully with the watchdog and has made significant improvements to its data protection practices since becoming aware of the breach. For more details visit the ICO website.


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