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What is special category data?

Man/employer holding finger print next to DNA strand of special category data

What is special category data?

‘Special category data’ is personal data that’s been classed as ‘sensitive’. This is because if it's used to identify a person, it can significantly risk their fundamental rights and freedoms.

Special category data is any data that reveals:

  • Racial or ethnic origin (this could even include data like a person’s name or photo, as long as it’s in the context where a specific individual and their race/ethnicity can be identified)
  • Political opinions
  • Religious or philosophical beliefs
  • Trade union membership
  • Genetic data
  • Biometric data (when used for identification e.g. fingerprints or voice)
  • Health
  • Sex life
  • Sexual Orientation

Special category data is important. Your freedom of expression, right to respect for private and family life, and your freedom from discrimination, can, for example, be threatened by the processing of special category data.

Who can use special category data?

People, organisations and public bodies can use special category data in specific contexts.

Some examples of what special category data can be used for are:

  • Law enforcement and parliamentary purposes
  • Ensuring equality, and racial and ethnic diversity at senior levels
  • Public and national security, such as money laundering or terrorism
  • Public interests, such as journalism, academia, art and literature
  • Counselling & health
  • Occupational pensions, or if an employer needs to process details about an employee’s sick leave
  • Serious cross-border threats to health
  • Political parties
  • Standards of behaviour in sport

Under the DPA, there are exemptions from the law for law enforcement and intelligence services. The rights of individuals (rights of access, erasure, rectification of inaccurate data, and rights related to automated decision making) can sometimes be restricted if these rights would: obstruct an investigation, the execution of criminal penalties, stop the prevention or detection of a criminal offence, endanger public security, national security, or the rights and freedoms of others.

As an individual, can I ask organisations to delete my special category data?

Absolutely. Most organisations, with the exception a few public bodies like the police, must delete your personal data if you ask them to. This is even more important in the case of special category data.

To do this, you can send a broad subject access request to an organisation or organisations who you suspect to have your data, to see what they have. Then, you can ask them to delete it in full or in part.

On the other hand, you can skip that first step and just send a deletion request!

Delete your sensitive data

I’m a small business owner who needs to process special category data, what should I do?

It’s great that you’re asking this, we’ve put together a short blog on how companies should handle special category data, please do give it a read!

Final thoughts

To summarise, special category data is sensitive personal information that can be used to identify you. The reason why it’s classed as ‘sensitive’ is because it has the potential to negatively impact your fundamental rights and freedoms.

While it’s important that you can find out where your personal data is for this reason, most companies do make the effort to handle special category data properly. After all, it is illegal not to.

To find out whether a company is storing your sensitive data, you can start sending requests by clicking the button below. As always, if you have any questions, please do get in touch!


P.S. If you're concerned about the future security of your personal data, including special category data, please see our article on how you can protect yourself online.