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It is not uncommon for employees when leaving their employment to copy customer details either for their own use or for use in their new role with a competitor.
Steps can be taken by the employer to seek the return of any confidential information or property belonging to the company. However, this is not the only option available to an employer.
The removal of customer details can also be reported to the Information Commissioner’s Office (“ICO”) who may prosecute the former employee for breach of the Data Protection Act 1998.
Under section 55, it is an offence for a person to knowingly or recklessly obtain personal data without the consent of the data controller. Defences are available to such an offence which include if the individual can show that obtaining the information was necessary to prevent or detect a crime, that the individual had a reasonable belief that he had the right to obtain or disclose the information, that the individual acted in the reasonable belief he would have had the data controllers consent to take such information or the actions were taken in the public interest. The defences have not been fully tested so it is unclear how the Courts will deal with such matters.
However, if a prosecution is successful then the individual can face a fine of up to £5,000 should the proceedings take place in the Magistrates Court or an unlimited level if the prosecution takes place in the Crown Court.
Recently the ICO has successfully prosecuted an individual who emailed details of nearly 1000 customers to his personal email address when he was leaving the employ of one company to commence work with a competitor. The information contained contact details and purchase history of customers. The individual was fined, ordered to pay compensation and costs of just under £1,000. Whilst the fine in this case was of a modest level it does send a clear message to others who may be thinking of taking customer information in the future.
The ICO are keen to see further sanctions in place to act as a deterrent against the unlawful use of personal information. We also may see more prosecutions on the horizon in an attempt to prevent further breaches of the Data Protection Act. As a result this could prove a useful tool to employers should ex-employees seek to remove customer information alongside any other remedies.
If you require any further advice in respect of the removal of customer information or company property please contact Marion Meager on 0113 2206344.