Farmers exposed by Natural England data leak over Cornish SSSI plan

Natural England has committed an embarrassing data breach and released sensitive personal information online of dozens of people who responded to a public consultation on the future of Penwith Moors in Cornwall.

The government agency has published the personally identifying information (PII) of at least 38 people, including farmers, who responded to the Citizen Space portal.

Members of the public were encouraged to send submissions to the Defra online portal, which asked their opinion on government plans to impose a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) on the moor.

See also: Natural England ‘land grab’ threatens Cornish livelihoods

The consultation ran for four months, including questions that identified each consultee’s name, address, telephone number, email and organisation.

Six questions relating to the SSSI asked respondents if they objected or supported the proposal and agreed or disagreed with the government’s scientific rationale, evidence, views about management and consents for management.

It is believed Natural England may have used automatic redaction software, which failed to redact emails, addresses and telephone numbers, but did manage to randomly redact authors’ names that several consultees had included in bibliographies.

A campaign group which submitted a request to Natural England for information under the Freedom of Information Act later notified them about the data breach and emailed the Information Commissioner.

The page, which contained the unredacted PII, was published using a third-party provider outside the Defra group. is owned and operated by Axosoft LLC, a company that operates in the US.

This has now been removed online following Farmers Weekly’s enquiry.

Confidentiality breach

Within the responses to the consultation, seen by Farmers Weekly, nine out of 89 objectors explicitly said their response was to be kept confidential. However, no supporters of the scheme requested confidentiality.

A source said: “This is a highly contentious and divisive issue that has obtained an unprecedented response from objectors precisely because it has been built on such flimsy ‘evidence’.

“Now, Natural England has recklessly exposed all the participants to unacceptable risk by leaking their PII.

“There have been clear breaches of both data protection laws and the common law ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’.

“This is an outrageous breach of privacy, but entirely consistent with the slapdash approach that Natural England has exemplified by cobbled-together work on this project.

“Astonishingly, well over 40% of data is a decade old and 6.5% of the habitats data is from 2008.”

A Natural England spokesperson said: “We can confirm that a minor data breach has occurred in relation to consultation responses on the designation of Penwith Moors in west Cornwall as a site of special scientific interest [SSSI].

“Natural England takes data security very seriously. We have removed the information and are conducting a thorough investigation into how this incident occurred. We apologise for any upset caused.”

Unprecedented level of opposition to SSSI plan

Natural England’s plans to turn part of west Cornwall into a protected wildlife area have sparked strong opposition from local farmers, who fear their activities will be severely compromised.

Cornish management of Penwith farms dates back millennia, including the creation of the famous Iron Age field system, with its irregularly shaped boundaries.

For the first time in history, however, outside management is being imposed.

In total, 3,153ha of Penwith Moors was notified by Natural England as a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) on 7 October, 2022, causing anger and upset among local farmers.

Analysis of Natural England’s board minutes shows the government’s plan to designate Penwith Moors as an SSSI has received an unprecedented level of opposition.

Farmers Weekly can reveal there were a total of 183 objections, with 89 (49%) submitted using Defra’s Citizen Space portal.

The personally identifying information (PII) of 24 of these 89 online submissions (27%) was insufficiently redacted and published online by Natural England.

Seventy-two of the 89 online objections (81%) stated the consenting regime was inappropriate for Penwith.

Data reveals the scheme obtained 87 supporters in total, of which 80 (92%) were submitted through Citizen Space. Of these 80, 16 (20%) contain leaked PII.

Just one of the 80 online supporters commented on all six questions, while 52 online supporters (65%) left no comment at all. None of the supporters were farmers.

Natural England is due to respond to the objectors from next week and a final decision on the designation of Penwith Moors SSSI must be made before 7 July.

In 2015, the West Pennines SSSI received only 26 objections (8%), with 272 representations of support (88%). In 2017, the Mid-Cornwall SSSI received just eight objections.