When processing personal data legally, organisations have six possible reasons or ‘bases’ to rely upon: consent, contract, legal obligation, vital interest, public task or legitimate interests. Most of these are unambiguous. Fulfilling a contract or protecting someone’s life for example. On the surface, ‘legitimate interests’ appears more open to interpretation. What will be considered legitimate? And whose interests will be taken into account? When all else fails, organisations often mistakenly look to legitimate interests as a base for processing that furthers their business interest. Seeing legitimate interests as a fall-back is misguided. In many respects it is just as stringent as any of the other possible bases.

Legitimate Interests – Legislation

The UK GDPR describes legitimate interests as “processing necessary for the purposes of the legitimate interests pursued by the controller or by a third party, except where such interests are overridden by the interests or fundamental rights and freedoms of the data subject which require protection of personal data, in particular where the data subject is a child”.

Legitimate interests is different to the other lawful bases as it is not centred around a particular purpose (e.g. performing a contract with the individual, complying with a legal obligation, protecting vital interest or carrying out a public task), and it is not processing that the individual has specifically agreed to (consent). Legitimate interests is more flexible and could in principle apply to any type of processing for any reasonable purpose.

Because it could apply in a wide range of circumstances, it puts the onus on you to balance your legitimate interests and the necessity of processing the personal data against the interests, rights and freedoms of the individual taking into account the particular circumstances. This is different to the other lawful bases which presume that your interests and those of the individual are balanced.

Three-part test

The ICO (UK data protection regulatory authority) interprets the legislation with a three-part test. The wording creates three distinct obligations:

  1. “Processing is necessary for…” – the necessity teste. is the processing necessary for the purpose?
  2. “… the purposes of the legitimate interests pursued by the controller or by a third party, …” – the purpose teste. is there a legitimate interest behind the processing?
  3. “… except where such interests are overridden by the interests or fundamental rights and freedoms of the data subject which require protection of personal data, in particular where the data subject is a child.” – the balancing teste. are the legitimate interests overridden by the individual’s interests, rights or freedoms?

Purpose test – what counts as a ‘legitimate interests’?

A wide range of interests may be legitimate interests. It could be your legitimate interests in the processing or it could include the legitimate interests of any third party. The term ‘third party’ doesn’t just refer to other organisations, it could also be a third party individual. The legitimate interests of the public in general may also play a part when deciding whether the legitimate interests in the processing override the individual’s interests and rights. If the processing has a wider public interest for society at large, then this may add weight to your interests when balancing these against those of the individual.

Examples

The UK GDPR does not have an exhaustive list of what purposes are likely to constitute legitimate interests. However, the recitals do say the following purposes constitute legitimate interests: fraud prevention; ensuring network and information security; or indicating possible criminal acts or threats to public security.

Therefore, if you are processing for one of these purposes you may have less work to do to show that the legitimate interests basis applies. The recitals also say that the following activities may indicate a legitimate interest: processing employee or client data; direct marketing; or administrative transfers within a group of companies.

However, whilst these last three activities may indicate legitimate interests, you still need to do some work to identify your precise purpose and show that it is legitimate in the specific circumstances, and in particular that any direct marketing complies with e-privacy rules on consent.

The necessity test

You need to demonstrate that the processing is necessary for the purposes of the legitimate interests you have identified. This doesn’t mean that it has to be absolutely essential, but it must be a targeted and proportionate way of achieving your purpose. You need to decide on the facts of each case whether the processing is proportionate and adequately targeted to meet its objectives, and whether there is any less intrusive alternative, i.e. can you achieve your purpose by some other reasonable means without processing the data in this way? If you could achieve your purpose in a less invasive way, then the more invasive way is not necessary.

The balancing test

Just because you have determined that your processing is necessary for your legitimate interests does not mean that you are automatically able to rely on this basis for processing. You must also perform a ‘balancing test’ to justify any impact on individuals. The balancing test is where you take into account “the interests or fundamental rights and freedoms of the data subject which require the protection of personal data” and check they don’t override your interests. In essence, this is a light-touch risk assessment to check that any risks to individuals’ interests are proportionate. If the data belongs to children then you need to be particularly careful to ensure their interests and rights are protected.

Reasonable expectations

Recital 47 of the UK GDPR says “the existence of a legitimate interest would need careful assessment including whether a data subject can reasonably expect at the time and in the context of the collection of the personal data that processing for that purpose may take place. The interests and fundamental rights of the data subject could in particular override the interest of the data controller where personal data are processed in circumstances where data subjects do not reasonably expect further processing.”

The UK GDPR is clear that the interests of the individual could in particular override your legitimate interests if you intend to process personal data in ways the individual does not reasonably expect. This is because if processing is unexpected, individuals lose control over the use of their data, and may not be in an informed position to exercise their rights. There is a clear link here to your transparency obligations.

You need to assess whether the individual can reasonably expect the processing, taking into account particularly when and how the data was collected. This is an objective test. The question is not whether a particular individual actually expected the processing, but whether a reasonable person should expect the processing in the circumstances.

How do you apply legitimate interests in practice?

The ICO guidance states that organisations should undertake the three-part test and document the outcome, this process is referred to as a “legitimate interests assessment” (LIA). The length of a LIA will vary depending on the context and circumstances surrounding the processing. LIAs are intended to be a simple form of risk assessment, in contrast to a data protection impact assessment (DPIA) which is a “much more in-depth end-to-end process”. A LIA is also a potential trigger for a DPIA. The ICO confirms that there is no specific duty in the UK GDPR to undertake a LIA, however, as a matter of best practice, one should be undertaken by organisations in order to meet their obligations under the UK GDPR accountability principle.

Once a LIA has been undertaken and an organisation has concluded that the legitimate interests basis for processing applies, then it should continue to keep the LIA under regular review. Where a LIA identifies high risks to the rights and freedoms of the individual, then a DPIA should be undertaken to assess these risks in more detail.

What else is there to consider?

The ICO also recommends that:

  • Individuals are informed of the purpose for processing, that legitimate interest is the basis being relied on and what that legitimate interest is. Organisations’ privacy notices should also be updated to reflect this.
  • Where an organisation’s purposes change or where it has a new purpose, it may still be able to continue processing for that new purpose on the basis of legitimate interests as long as the new purpose is compatible with the original purpose. A compatibility assessment should be undertaken in this case.
  • Organisations should be aware of individuals’ rights, for example, where legitimate interests is relied on as a basis for processing then the right to data portability does not apply to any personal data being processed on that basis.

Here to help

The concept of ‘legitimate interests’ as a basis for processing personal data predates GDPR. Many organisations are consequently aware of the concept. It should not, however, be taken for granted when organisations wish to further a business interest. As shown above, there are a number of obligations to consider, and therefore the basis should not be considered lightly or as a last resort.

If you have any questions on legitimate interests, data protection law more generally or on any of the issues raised in this article please get in touch with one of our data protection lawyers.