The Data Protection Act: What is personal data?

01 May 2019

The Data Protection Act: What is personal data?

Stephanie Perry, Head of Information Assurance

You may have seen in the news recently that the pregnancy and parenting club, Bounty have been fined £400,000 by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for illegally sharing 34.4 million records containing the personal information of more than 14 million people.

Bounty breached the Data Protection Act 2018 (the Act) by sharing personal data records with a total of 39 different agencies, including Equifax and Sky. Bounty had collected the personal information through its registration processes, either online or via its mobile app or directly from new mothers in hospital maternity wards and was acting as a data broker for other organisations.

The ICO also found that, although Bounty’s privacy notice had a reasonably clear description of the organisation and who they may share information with, it did not list any of the firms that it was sharing data with.

It has been nearly a year since the UK government introduced a GDPR update to the Act, and it seems there are still organisations who are collecting, storing and transmitting too much information on individuals, without their consent or informing them. This case is specifically focused on the amount of personal information that Bounty held on individuals, including potentially vulnerable mothers, or mothers-to-be, and very young children, including the birth and sex of the infant.

Read more: Why organisations can’t afford to forget about data protection and GDPR

Defining personal data

So, what constitutes personal data and personal information? How do you know if you have it and what steps should you take to ensure that your business doesn’t fall foul of the ICO?

The key problem around defining personal data is that there is no definitive list of what is or is not personal data; it comes down to a sensible interpretation of the guidelines set out by the ICO under the Act. The ICO states that:

“Personal data is information that relates to an identified or identifiable individual.”

In short, this could be as straight forward as name, address or a telephone number and as complicated as an IP address or an email address.

Essentially, as the ICO states, “if it is possible to identify an individual directly from the information that is being processed then that information may very well be personal data”.

What is an identified or identifiable individual?

An ‘identified or identifiable natural person’ under the Data Protection Act is also called a ‘data subject’. They can be identified directly or indirectly by reference to a piece of data, such as a name, ID number, location data or online identifiers. This can also refer to one or more factors specific to the physical, physiological, mental, economic, cultural or social identity of that natural person. 

Even if you cannot identify an individual directly from the types of information above, you still need to consider whether the individual is still identifiable. An organisation should consider the information that it is processing together with all the means reasonably likely to be used either by you or another person to identify that individual.

What do we do now?

Obviously, this is a lot of information to understand and apply within your organisation to ensure that you comply with the requirements of the Data Protection Act. But, what is the best approach for businesses that are seeking to ensure they are compliant and to eliminate risk within the data they hold?

The first step is to ensure you understand the data you have. This can be achieved through a thorough examination of your organisation’s data - understanding what is being held, where it is being held and who that data is being shared with.

Once you know what data your organisation is collecting and storing and who it is shared with, you can begin the process of ensuring that the data is only held for justifiable reasons (i.e. a lawful basis for processing) and that individuals are aware of what data an organisation holds on them (privacy notice).

If you or your business would like more advice on the Data Protection Act and how to implement it, please contact us for a confidential discussion: or via phone +44 (0)207 887 2699


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