Personal data protection, case I OSK 667/09

February 13th, 2010, Tomasz Rychlicki

On 15 January 2008, Tomasz W. filed with the General Inspector for Personal Data Protection (GIODO) a complaint concerning an unauthorized processing of personal data carried out by the Polish company Nasza Klasa Sp. z o.o. from Wroclaw, the owner of website. He informed the GIODO, that this very popular Polish website on classmates, hosts a photo featuring his image together with a list of names of other photographed people attached to it. Tomasz W. has repeatedly appealed to the website administrators with the request to remove his name from the list. However, he received no response from Nasza Klasa company.

As a result of the investigation, the GIODO found that on 31 December 2007, a registered user of posted classmates’ photo featuring students of a primary school. On the same day, another registered user, placed the names of people who were portrayed at the photograph – including the name and surname of Tomasz W. On 2, 9 and 14 January 2008, Tomasz W. requested Nasza Klasa Sp. z o.o. the removal of his personal data.

In a decision of 27 May 2008, case file DOLiS/DEC-314/08/13239, the GIODO, relying on the provisions of the Polish Act of 29 August 1997 on the Protection of Personal Data – PPD – (in Polish: Ustawa o ochronie danych osobowych), published in Journal of Laws (Dziennik Ustaw) of 29 October 1997, No. 133, item 883, unified text published in Journal of Laws (Dziennik Ustaw) of 6 July 2002, No. 101, item 926, with subsequent amendments, ruled that information on the applicant’s full name, school and class to which he attended, together with his image, are personal data and the data collector is Nasza Klasa Sp. z o.o.

However, the GIODO also ruled that it should be borne in mind that according to the provision of the Polish Act of 18 July 2002 on Providing Services by Electronic Means – PSEM – (in Polish: ustwa o świadczeniu usług droga elektroniczną), published in Journal of Laws (Dziennik Ustaw) No. 144, item. 1204 with subsequent amendments, Nasza Klasa sp. z o.o. provides electronic services for registered users of the portal website, consisting of the storage of data of these users in the computer system. This activity is the condition to legalize the processing of personal data in accordance with article 23(1) pt. 5 of the PPD. In addition, the GIODO found that in this case the applicant’s rights have not been violated, because the access to its data was limited to a group of people registered on website.

Tomasz W. asked the GIODO for the retrial. He pointed out that the reasons for the decision have many contradictions, inconsistencies and is ambiguous. He accused the GIODO of laconic and cursory treatment of his case. He again emphasized that his personal data have been published on the website without his knowledge or consent, in violation of his civil rights and liberties.

After the rehearing of the case, the GIODO annulled the contested decision, and discontinued the proceedings. GIODO claimed that the re-examination of the case leads to the conclusion that the disputed information about Tomasy W. did not fall within the definition of personal data. The name and surname have been given under his old image from many years ago. Hence, the combination of photos from the past, with a name and surname of a person and a primary school, which such person attended did not allow for the identification of a person without excessive costs and time. The findings that the disputed information is not personal data within the meaning of the PPD caused the proceedings in the matter to be groundless and on the basis of article 105 § 1 of the APC, it had to be discontinued.

Tomasz W. lodged a complaint with the Viovodeship Administrative Court in Warsaw. The complainant asked for annulment of the decision of first and second instance. Tomasz W. claimed the violation of the substantive law, i.e. article 6(1) of the PPD, through its improper interpretation, of article 32(1) pt 7 and 8 of that Act, by recognizing that Tomasz W. is not entitled to request cessation of the processing of his data and the right to object, and a breach of article 7 of the APC by not explaining all the relvant facts. Tomasz W. disagreed with the statement of the GIODO that questioned information about his person is not personal data within the meaning of the PPD. He stated that any information about an identified or identifiable individual is personal data. Furthermore, he argued that the claim of the GIODO that the data are available only for specific people – registered users of the portal is not acceptable, because has no mechanisms for verification of users identity, which makes the questioned data easily accessible for everyone. Moreover, Tomasz W. also argued that a registered user who does not know him would have some difficulty in identifying his person but such obstacles would not happen to a person who knows about Tomasy W., and is looking for additional information.

The Voivodeship Administrative Court in its judgment of 3 March 2009 case file II SA/Wa 1495/08 ruled that the GIODO erred in its decisions, because information about the name and surname of Tomasz W., combined with information about the name and address of the primary school and the determination of the class to which he attended in 1978/79, even if it was thirty years ago, are personal data. According to the Court provisions of article 1 of the PPD introduced the principle of autonomy of human information, meaning the protection of information about human being. This provision is a kind of emanation of the general right guaranteed by the Polish Constitution in article 47, according to which “Everyone shall have the right to legal protection of his private and family life, of his honour and good reputation and to make decisions about his personal life”. This means that the protection of personal data is related to the protection of privacy rights. This follows from the wording of article 6 of the PPD, indicating that the personal data concern identified or identifiable natural or legal person and that the identifiable is a person is one whose identity can be determined. From wording of that provisions the VAC concluded that personal data are data that identify a person’s identity. The VAC also relied on the content of recital 12 of the Directive 95/46/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 24 October 1995 on the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data and on the free movement of such data, which emphasized the protection of all data relating to a person, and therefore also information about someones past.

(12) Whereas the protection principles must apply to all processing of personal data by any person whose activities are governed by Community law; whereas there should be excluded the processing of data carried out by a natural person in the exercise of activities which are exclusively personal or domestic, such as correspondence and the holding of records of addresses

However, in recital 26 of the abovementioned Directive states that data protection rules must apply to any information concerning an identified or identifiable person. In order to determine whether a person is identifiable, all the means which can be used by the controller or any other person to identify a person, should be taken into the account. The rules of data protection do not apply to data rendered anonymously in such a way that a subject of the data can not be identified. The identification of a given person concerns also past information about a specific human being, by which information one can learn about such person’s identity. Accordingly, the VAC held that European law means the protection of personal data as the protection of all the facts concerning the past of a particular person, which corresponds with the content of article 6(2) of the PDP. So this means that such data would also be protected. Referring to the foregoing facts of Tomasz W. case, the VAC ruled that that website published his image and name. In the opinion of the court these are the personal data which are protected by the PPD, because on their basis one is able to identify given person.

Nasza Klasa sp. z o.o. filed a cassation complaint with the Supreme Administrative Court (SAC) challenging in entirety the judgment of the VAC. The Supreme Administrative Court in a judgment of 18 November 2009, case file I OSK 667/09, rejected the complaint. The SAC held that the primary issue arising in this case was whether a classmates’ picture that was taken thirty years ago, at which Tomasz W. is potrayed, in the circumstances of the case, can be analyzed to determine his identity without necessarily involving excessive resources or time, and therefore, whether the data disclosed in the photo in question, constitutes personal data within the meaning of article 6 of the PPD, and whether it should be protected.

The concept of “personal data” on the Polish law includes any information concerning an individual if it is possible to define its identity and its identification. Personal data is a set of messages about a particular person such integrated that it allows for its individualization. It includes at least information necessary for identification (name, surname, place of residence), but this is not restricted, because it also include further information, strengthening the degree of identification. Such information will also include pictures of the individual, even if they were taken in the past, allowing to identify a person. In a situation where such a photograph is presented with a name and surname of the person portrayed, in a place accessible to an unlimited number of entities, it must be considered that it constitutes personal data subject to protection under the PPD. Mainly, the objective evaluation criteria decides for the qualification of given information as personal data, but it also should comprise of all information, including extralinguistic (context), to which third party may have or has an access. A different approach to the presented issues would maginalize the importance of the laws and it would not relate to its designated function.

Thus it should be considered that the image of Tomasz W. portrayed at the photograph that was taken 30 years ago, affixed with the class, his name and surname, and then published at website constitutes personal data within the meaning of article 6(2) of the PPD, and the cassation complaint was not justified. The SAC also noted that the consent for the processing of personal data cannot be in any way implied.

The SAC also stressed the fact the Internet as a source of information is increasing on a unknown scale and importance. It provides an access to specific information to a vast number of persons and allows for any of its processing within the meaning of the PPD. At the same time there are not yet developed appropriate mechanisms for the protection of individual rights when those rights have been violated as a result of the disclosure of information on the Internet. Then, it is a great role of law enforcement bodies, including the Inspector General for Personal Data Protection in creating practice to comply with applicable laws also on the Internet. It is an unacceptablr situation in which the entity seeks to remove its image from a particular website, and the administration fails to take action to ensure the protection of civil rights. The image is one of the very personal property rights and lack of consent to its publication, if it is not a public person, is a sufficient reason to believe that regulations of the PPD apply, if the conditions set in the article 6(2) of the PPD have been met. There is a legal sequel to this story. See “Personal data protection, case II SA/Wa 1212/10“.

See also “Polish regulations on personal data protection” and “Polish case law on personal data protection“.