EU Data Protection & Private Investigators

| Author: Darren Shelmerdine [Member (F/1004)] | Filed under: General News
EU Data Protection & Private Investigators

Investigative and security professionals conducting investigations in countries covered by EU Data protection statutes should take a quick look at a 63-page report annual report just released by the Data Protection Commissioner of Ireland.The Data Protection Commission (DPC) has authority with the responsibility for "upholding the European Union fundamental right of individuals to have their personal data protected." The report includes findings of the DPC's Special Investigations Unit about which I have briefly covered here. A link to the full DPC report is at the end.

Private Investigators & Data Protection Acts 1988 and 2003

2016 was the first full year of operation of the office’s Special Investigations Unit. Their cases demonstrate, a significantly high level of breaches by some private investigators which have been uncovered since the concerns in this area first came to light in 2013. In 2016, their investigation was extended across all sectors that use private-investigator services on a regular basis – such as banks, insurance companies, law firms and financial services companies. The office noted that the ongoing investigation into the private investigator (PI) sector “remained a central focus, leading to two successful prosecutions”.

One of the case studies highlighted in the report is that of private investigator James Cowley, who was charged with 61 counts of breaches of the Data Protection Acts 1988 and 2003 for “obtaining access to personal data without the prior authority of the data controller by whom the data is kept and disclosing the data to another person”. The report states: “The personal data was kept by the Department of Social Protection. The personal data was disclosed to entities in the insurance sector – the State Claims Agency, Zurich Plc and Allianz Plc."

On 13 June 2016, at Dublin Metropolitan District Court, James Cowley pleaded guilty to 13 sample charges. He was convicted on the first four charges and the court imposed a fine of €1,000 in respect of each of these four charges. The remaining nine charges were taken into consideration in the sentence imposed. The report states in part:
“The investigation in this case uncovered access by the defendant to social welfare records held on databases in the Department of Social Protection. To access these records, the defendant used a staff contact who was known to him. Mr Cowley then used the information he had obtained for the purposes of compiling private investigator reports for his clients.

“These activities continued for a number of years up to September 2015, when our investigation team first made contact with him about its concerns in relation to his processing of personal data."

All the charges against Cowley related to breaches of Section 22 of the Data Protection Acts for obtaining access to personal data without the prior authority of the data controller by whom the data is kept and disclosing the data to another person. The personal data was kept by the Department of Social Protection and as previously stated had been disclosed to entities in the insurance sector – the State Claims Agency, Zurich Plc and Allianz Plc.

The investigation in this case uncovered access by the defendant to social-welfare records held on databases in the Department of Social Protection. To access these records, the defendant used a staff contact who was known to him. Mr Cowley then used the information he had obtained for the purposes of compiling private-investigator reports for his clients. These activities continued for a number of years up to September 2015, when their investigation team first made contact with him about its concerns in relation to his processing of personal data.

The unit was established primarily to carry out investigations on its own initiative, as distinct from complaints-based investigations. The ongoing investigation into the private-investigator sector remained a central focus of the work of the Special Investigations Unit in 2016. Arising from investigations conducted by the unit, two prosecutions were successfully undertaken in 2016.

Source:  Data Protection Annual Report

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