A TV production company has been fined £120,000 after it set up cameras in a maternity clinic for a documentary on stillbirths, but tragically didn't get patients' advance permission for filming.
True Visions Productions (TVP) was working on a Channel 4 documentary at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, where positioned static CCTV-style cameras and microphones in four examination rooms.
The clinic is for walk-in patients who are pregnant and have concerns about foetal development and movement, and about 1,990 patients would have been seen in the five months the cameras were in place.
Despite knowing it would be processing sensitive personal data on these patients – indeed, that was TVP's whole reason for being there – the firm failed to offer sufficient information or gain the proper permissions in advance.
And if someone did realise and object to filming, an investigation found that there was no way to stop the cameras, leaving clinicians to resort to methods like taping carrier bags over the devices.
The Information Commissioner's Office investigated the events after the filming – which took place from July to November 2017 – hit national news headlines, and today said it had fined the TVP £120,000.
In a penalty notice (PDF), the ICO said that, by definition, the footage captured would include sensitive personal data – which is given greater protections under the law.
"Indeed, the very purpose of the filming was to capture some of the most private and traumatic personal data any person may experience," the ICO said.
The watchdog also pointed out that people visiting the clinic will likely be anxious or stressed and their attention will be focused on the health of their child.
Despite this, TVP did not directly and specifically inform patients they would be filmed, and consent was not sought in advance. Production staff weren't even in the clinic full time, attending only three to four days each week.
Instead, TVP – which did have the permission of the hospital to be there – put up only "limited notices" about the filming near the cameras and in the waiting room.
Meanwhile, "generalised letters" left on the waiting room tables didn't provide enough explanation about the filming to patients, and staff did not draw patients' attention to them.
They didn't say that people who didn't want to be filmed would have to request to be seen in a room without a camera, and one even stated, incorrectly, "that mums and visitors would not be filmed without permission".
Moreover, if someone did object to filming, "there was no mechanism by which the cameras could be stopped" as the devices didn't have a stop button. If there wasn't a camera-less room free, clinicians had to resort to "unsuitable means", like taping a carrier bag over it.
TVP said footage wasn't viewed unless consent had been provided, and that filming that didn't involve a stillbirth incident would be deleted after three days.
According to the ICO, TVP's central argument for its approach was that it believed that seeking prior consent would risk distressing patients, distract staff and risk delaying provision of medical treatment – which the commissioner described as "extremely concerning".
It noted that the burden on medical staff would have been reduced if TVP staff had been present every day, and pointed out the logical fallacy in their argument: if patients would be distressed by asking about filming, surely it was clear the fact of filming would also be distressing.
"The recorded footage would have included the sensitive personal data of patients who could already be suffering anxiety and stress," said Steve Eckersley, ICO director of investigations.
"We recognise the public interest in programmes that aim to educate and inform, but those responsible for making them must operate within the law, particularly when the subject involves the processing of highly sensitive medical information." ®