Pharmacy 2U offered the customer names and addresses for sale through an online marketing list company. Companies that bought the details included a health supplements company that has been cautioned for misleading advertising and an Australian lottery company subject to investigation by Trading Standards.
The ICO investigation found that Pharmacy 2U had not informed its customers that it intended to sell their details, and that the customers had not given their consent for their personal data to be sold on. This was in breach of the Data Protection Act.
ICO Deputy Commissioner David Smith said:
“Patient confidentiality is drummed into pharmacists. It is inconceivable that a business in this sector could believe these actions were acceptable. Put simply, a reputable company has made a serious error of judgement, and today faces the consequences of that. It should send out a clear message to other companies that the customer data they hold is not theirs to do with as they wish. “Once people’s personal information has been sold on once in this way, we often see it then gets sold on again and again. People are left wondering why so many companies are contacting them and how they come to be in receipt of their details.”
The incident was initially uncovered by a Daily Mail investigation. More than 100,000 customer details were advertised for sale.
The customer database was advertised as including people suffering from ailments such as asthma, Parkinson’s disease and erectile dysfunction. Breakdowns of customers, such as men over 70 years old, were available, and records were advertised for sale for £130 per 1000 records.
The civil monetary penalty is the first of its type, with the company found to have breached the first principle of the Data Protection Act regarding fair and lawful processing of data.
The ICO investigation found the lottery company that bought customer records appeared to have deliberately targeted elderly and vulnerable individuals, and it is likely that some customers will have suffered financially as a result of their details being passed on.The Commissioner notes [PDF] -
Pharmacy2U is the UK's largest NHS approved online pharmacy. It is registered with the General Pharmaceutical Council and the Care Quality Commission.
Pharmacy2U has a website (www.pharmacy2u.co.uk) through which it provides the following services: (a) an electronic prescription service: NHS patients can register to have their NHS prescriptions sent to Pharmacy2U electronically and delivered to their home address; (b) an online Doctor service, offering confidential online medical consultations with a UK registered GP; and (c) online retail of over the counter medicines and health and beauty products. ...
The Pharmacy2U database lists were advertised for rental on the Alchemy website. The data card for Pharmacy2U states that the data includes 77,621 0-12 month “buyers” and 36,207 13-24 month “buyers”. It also states that buyers include NHS patients, Pharmacy2U online patients and Pharmacy2U retail customers. It lists typical ailments that are treated including asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, Parkinson's disease, epilepsy, erectile dysfunction, hair loss, weight loss, travel health, skin conditions, pain, migraine, cold and flu and nicotine replacement for smoking cessation. It also includes an age breakdown which shows that 82% of the buyers are over the age of 40. The cost is listed as £130 per 1000 records.
In November and December 2014, Alchemy supplied a total of 21,500 Pharmacy2U customers’ names and addresses to three organisations: Griffin Media Solutions, an Australian lottery company (“the lottery company”) and Camphill Village Trust Ltd.
On 20 November 2014, Griffin Media Solutions ordered 13,000 records on behalf of its client Woods Supplements (10,000 records plus a 30% oversupply to allow for duplicates). The data related to customers who had used Pharmacy2U within the previous 12 months. The order was approved by a senior executive of Pharmacy2U. ...
On 9 December 2014, the lottery company ordered 3,000 records relating to males aged 70 or over who had used Pharmacy2U within the previous 6 months. The lottery company provided a copy of the proposed mailer and a corporate profile pack to Pharmacy2U which included a copy of their mail order lottery licence and a letter from the Northern Territory Government.
The mailer was headed “Declaration of Executive Order” and went on to say that the recipient had been “specially selected” to “win millions of dollars”. The mailer contained a form which recipients were asked to complete and return within seven days along with payment of an unspecified sum of money by cash, postal order, cheque or credit card. The form also requested date of birth, email address, telephone number and mobile number.
A senior executive of Pharmacy2U approved the order with the words “OK but let’s use the less spammy creative please, and if we get any complaints I would like to stop this immediately”. The data was sent to Australia.
The mailer has been examined by the UK’s National Trading Standards Scams Team, which has confirmed that if it was sent by a UK business it would be likely to breach the UK Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations.
The National Trading Standards Scams Team has also informed the Commissioner’s office that the lottery company is the subject of an ongoing international criminal investigation into fraud and money laundering, although this wouldn’t have been known to Pharmacy2U.