How Can Companies Dispose of Documents Containing Personal Data?

Last updated on January 17, 2024

Featured image for the "How Can Companies Dispose of Documents Containing Personal Data?" article. It features a hand holding a crumpled ball of paper over a wastepaper bin.

Before throwing unwanted documents into the bin, think again.

Did you know that companies are legally obliged under the Personal Data Protection Act (“PDPA”) to properly dispose of documents containing personal data, and may be penalised if they fail to do so?

Read on to find out more.

Do Your Company’s Documents Contain “Personal Data”?

The PDPA defines “personal data” very broadly. Under the PDPA, personal data refers to data from which an individual can be identified.

Accordingly, information such as a person’s name, identification number and even height and gender may be regarded as personal data. It does not matter that such data may be false.

Obligation to Protect Personal Data

Under the PDPA, companies are required to make “reasonable security arrangements” to protect personal data in their possession or control from:

  • Unauthorised access;
  • Collection;
  • Use;
  • Disclosure;
  • Copying;
  • Modification;
  • Disposal; or
  • Other similar risks; and
  • The loss of any storage medium or device on which personal data is stored (e.g., misplacing a document containing personal data)

This obligation applies even to the disposal of documents, so long as the documents contain personal data.

Methods of Disposing of Documents Containing Personal Data

Personal data can be contained in 2 main forms:

  • Physical documents: e.g. paper; and
  • Electronic media: e.g. hard disks, CDs and DVDs

Companies are required to implement policies and measures to ensure that personal data is properly disposed of, according to the form it is contained in.

Companies can also implement ICT systems to flag records which have reached the end of the retention period so that records that are no longer needed can be identified and disposed of. This includes temporary files such as interface files or data migration files.

How to dispose of personal data in physical documents

The Personal Data Protection Commission (“PDPC”), which administers and enforces the PDPA, recommends disposing of physical documents through one (or a combination) of the following methods:

  • Shredding: Shredding is the most commonly-used method as it is fast, safe and cost-effective. It involves cutting the physical document into pieces to make it difficult (or almost impossible) to put back together. Straight-cut shredders are not recommended as they merely cut paper into long strips. The PDPC is of the view that companies should, at the minimum, use level P-3 cross-cut shredders which cut paper into small pieces with a maximum area of 320 mm2, according to the internationally-referenced DIN 66399 security standard.
  • Incineration: Burning physical documents into ashes.
  • Pulping: Mixing physical documents with water and chemicals to break down the documents’ paper fibres.

These methods of disposal can be carried out in-house by the company itself, or by engaging an external service provider. However, companies should not leave documents containing personal data unattended while waiting for external service providers to collect them, such as leaving them at the office’s rear entrance or the ground floor of the building. This is to prevent unauthorised third-parties from gaining access to the documents’ contents.

It also goes without saying that simply throwing physical documents into the rubbish bin is not sufficient. The PDPC has fined a financial consultant $1,000 for failing to properly dispose of his clients’ policy-related documents. This was in view of how:

  • The financial consultant had merely put the documents in a plastic bag, tied it up and placed it in a rubbish bin in a residential estate;
  • The plastic bag did not have the effect of securing the documents, but merely concealed them; and
  • The documents were unshredded and intact, and it was easy for others to open the plastic bag to retrieve the documents inside (and the personal data on them).

How to dispose of personal data stored on electronic media

Personal data in electronic media can be disposed of in 2 ways:

  • Secure disposal of the personal data in the media only: Specialised software tools can be used to securely erase all personal data contained in the media. Deleting files by simply moving them to the computer’s “Recycle Bin” is insufficient as the files may still be recoverable (even after the “Recycle Bin” has been emptied);
  • Physical destruction of the media itself to render stored data inaccessible when secure deletion is not possible: e.g. degaussing, and incineration of faulty hard disks.

Companies are free to choose their preferred method(s) of disposal, so long as the personal data contained in the medium cannot be recovered in part or full.

Companies’ Liability for Acts of Employees

Companies should take appropriate measures to ensure that employees adhere to company policies on disposing of documents containing personal data. This is because companies are liable for their employees’ breaches of the PDPA if these breaches occurred in the course of the employee’s employment with the company.

This is even if the company hadn’t approved of the employee’s acts, or didn’t even know of them in the first place.

However, companies may be able to avoid liability if they can prove that they had taken steps, as were practicable, to prevent the employees in breach from improperly disposing of documents containing personal data.

Engagement of External Service Providers

Engaging external service providers to dispose of documents containing personal data does not relieve companies of their obligation under the PDPA to protect personal data.

The responsibility ultimately remains with companies themselves to ensure that personal data on documents are protected until they are properly destroyed.

The disposal of documents containing personal data is not as simple as you may think. It is every company’s responsibility to ensure that it has implemented adequate measures and policies for disposing of documents containing personal data, so as to avoid breaching its obligation under the PDPA to protect personal data.

If you require legal advice on drafting and implementing policies on the proper disposal of company documents containing personal data, feel free to get in touch with one of our data protection lawyers.

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