UK: Big Data And Data Protection: Preparing For Tales Of The Unexpected

Last Updated: 12 January 2015
Article by Richard Kemp

Data protection law – the bundle of statutory duties on those who handle personal data about individuals and the corresponding rights for the individuals concerned – sits plumb in the centre of data law, an increasingly broad and complex amalgam of contract law, intellectual property and regulation.

An important area of looming challenge for data protection lawyers at the moment is Big Data, the aggregation and analysis of datasets of great volume, variety and velocity for the purpose of competitive advantage1, where the business world is just at the start of a period of rapid adoption.

On 28 July 2014, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) published a paper on Big Data and Data Protection2. Unsurprisingly, the paper's main themes are that Big Data's complexity is no reason not to apply data protection law, and that that the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) is fundamentally fit for purpose when it comes to Big Data. In applying the DPA's principles to the issues that arise and providing some practical pointers on how to address them, the paper makes a timely contribution to Big Data management and governance but has fought shy on a number of the more challenging technical and legal issues.

Big Data – Data Protection issues

The report is specific around a number of Big Data use cases for personal data:

"If, for example, information that people have put on social media is going to be used to assess their health risks or their credit worthiness, or to market certain products to them, then unless they are informed of this and asked to give their consent, it is unlikely to be ... fair" (paragraph 69).

More generally, in focusing on how the DPA's principles of fairness (Principle 1), purpose limitation (Principle 3) and data minimisation (Principles 3 and 5) apply in the Big Data world, the report emphasises:

  • that specific and informed consent must be obtained before data collected for one purpose is analysed for a materially different purpose;
  • that organisations must find the right point to explain the benefits of the analytics, present users with a meaningful choice, and then respect that choice; and
  • just because Big Data analytics involves collecting as much data as possible ('N = all') does not mean that the DPA's data minimisation principles do not apply: "finding a correlation does not retrospectively justify obtaining the data in the first place. Organisations therefore need to be able to articulate at the outset why they need to collect and process particular datasets" (paragraph 73).

It would have been helpful to get an expression of ICO's views on the technical legal questions of quantifying the harm that individuals may suffer, and the corresponding liabilitythat may arise, as a result of using non-DPA compliant Big Data analytics, and it is to be hoped that ICO will shed light on this before too long.

Practical pointers towards addressing Data Protection issues in Big Data

Having illustrated the tensions between the DPA and Big Data, the paper also suggests pointers that organisations should address when considering Big Data analytics:

  • anonymisation3 data is no longer personal if fully anonymised4, but the growing power of Big Data means that absolute anonymisation may not be possible, so that organisations "should focus on mitigating the risks [of re-identification] to the point where the chance ... is extremely remote" (paragraph 42) using "solutions proportionate to the risk [which] may involve a range and combination of technical measures such as data masking, pseudonymisation, aggregation and banding, as well as legal and organisational safeguards" (paragraph 43). This formulation is rather bland, however, and the report shies away from more contentious technical considerations about the ability to re-identify anonymised and pseudonymised data.
  • privacy impact assessments: the report advocates the privacy impact assessment5as a tool to be used before processing begins to assess how Big Data analytics is likely to affect the individuals whose data is being processed and whether processing is fair.
  • building trust: citing IBM and Nectar loyalty card operator Aimia, "some evidence" is noted of companies "developing an approach to Big Data that focuses on the impact of the analytics on individuals" (paragraph 137) with companies looking:

"to place big data in a wider and essentially ethical context. In other words, they are asking not only "can we do this with the data?", ie does it meet regulatory requirements, but also "should we do this with the data?" ie is it what customers expect, or should expect?".

  • information governance: swelling the theme of "a trust based ethical approach" ICO notes "a growing emphasis on the issue of data quality and information governance in relation to Big Data analytics" (paragraph 141).

ICO's paper is a timely reminder of the pervasiveness of data protection law in the developing world of Big Data and is a start to providing helpful compliance pointers to organisations.

Richard Kemp6


1.See also for our Kemp IT Law white paper on Legal Aspects of managing Big Data


3.See also for ICO's Anonymisation Code of Practice.

4.where "it is not possible to identify an individual from the data itself or from that data in combination with other data, taking account of all the means that are reasonably likely to be used to identify them" (paragraph 40)


6.Richard will be speaking on Big Data and Data Protection at Practical Law's 3rd Annual Data Protection Conference on 12 November 2014 in London

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Richard Kemp
In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.