Virgin Trains did not break data protection laws when it released images of UK's opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn during his supposedly "ram-packed" trip to Newcastle, the UK’s data protection watchdog has said.
It did, however, infringe on other passengers' privacy, the Information Commissioner’s Office ruled - but has escaped formal regulatory action.
The ICO stepped in to investigate “traingate” after complaints that Virgin Trains East Coast had broken the law by releasing CCTV footage to counter the Labour leader’s claim he couldn’t find a seat on the London to Newcastle service.
The incident, which took place in the heat of the Labour leadership campaign last year, saw Jezza being filmed on the floor of a train complaining that, just like him, many passengers can’t get a seat on their trains.
“Today this train is completely ram-packed,” said old crumpled Corbyn. “The staff on the train are absolutely brilliant, working really hard to help everybody. The reality is there's not enough trains, we need more of them."
On seeing the video, Virgin Trains went on the offensive, publishing CCTV footage that clearly showed Corbyn walking through a particularly empty carriage, whipping the media into a frenzy in the process.
But, in a not unpredictable plot twist, the company's move was thrown back in its face after people questioned its grasp of the Data Protection Act.
However, VT can now breathe a sigh of relief, after the ICO investigation found that there was a “legitimate interest” to release the footage of Corbyn - “namely correcting what it deemed to be misleading news reports that were potentially damaging to its reputation and commercial interests”.
Steve Eckersley, leader of the enforcement team, said it was only possible for Virgin Trains to correct the facts by publishing images that showed an image of Corbyn on a train with empty seats.
And - given Corbyn had already made a video complaining about his train journey - it would be reasonable for him to expect the company to “respond in kind”, Eckersley said.
Where the train firm slipped up, though, was in publishing images of the other people on the train - but the ICO took no formal action because it was a “one-off incident” that was unlikely to cause serious distress to those identifiable people, and none of those affected complained.
“We did not deem it proportionate to use our regulatory stick on this occasion,” Eckersley said.
“But Virgin has not been let off the hook. Our investigation was rigorous and compelled the company to provide us with details of its practices, policies and procedures. The company was under no illusion of the seriousness of our involvement.”
In response, the company has said it will boost data protection training for all staff and amend CCTV policies for exceptional circumstances and ensure there is easy access to pixelation services.
Virgin Trains told The Reg: "We welcome the ICO's report which acknowledges the unique nature of the incident, and confirms that no regulatory action is needed. We have co-operated fully with the ICO's investigation and have already implemented the improvements to our procedures that we suggested." ®