Data, like everything in life eventually reaches the end of its usefulness – it becomes un-necessary to fulfil or support the purpose for which it was collected. It’s a natural part of the data lifecycle. Unavoidable. And at that point it should be destroyed – properly. Within the Data Protection Act 1998 the 5th and 7th data protection principles cover this point: the 5th principle states that data should be kept for no longer than is necessary to fulfil the purpose for which it was collected, and the 7th principle obliges data controllers to utilise appropriate technical and organisational measures to keep data secure. An organisational measure might be to log, clearly mark-up, segregate and keep secure all hard disks awaiting destruction, and a technical measure might be to smash redundant hard disks into oblivion! I’ve witnessed such a process and it is immensely satisfying. There are several companies offering such a service and will bring a mobile unit to your site and totally destroy hard disk media by smashing it to bits with a compressed air-powered machine. Be sure that you don’t destroy any data accidentally in the process otherwise that too would be a breach of the Data Protection Act!
In the news last week was a £3m pay out for a former banker who was successful in a sexual discrimination case against her employer. Her argument was pretty well supported by information obtained via a Subject Access Request (SAR) – one of the rights a data subject has in accordance with the 6th Data Protection Principle. Svetlana Lokhova was supplied with a range of documents in which she was described by her male colleagues as “Crazy Miss Cokehead” and “Miss Bonkers”. The comments were generally contained in emails many of which were from Ms Lokhova’s line manager to others in the bank and even to clients. In one email, her boss told a client, “We are all quaking here awaiting arrival of Ms Cokehead in a puff of sulphurous smoke”.
Once comments of this nature are contained within a data system they are very difficult indeed to find and destroy. Most email systems helpfully retain deleted emails in a “deleted emails” folder and of course an email will at least be in one “sent items” folder and one “Inbox”. It is an offence to deliberately delete information relevant to a SAR once a SAR has been received – but not only is it good practice but it is an obligation under the DPA to destroy once it is past its useful life.