Google escapes fine for privacy breach
Google and the Information Commissioner's Office have displayed contempt for privacy --- and free speech will suffer as a result, says Alex Deane of Big Brother Watch
05 Nov 10

Google and the Information Commissioner’s Office have displayed contempt for privacy — and free speech will suffer as a result, says Alex Deane of Big Brother Watch

I’ve asked this before , but –– is it time to break up the Information Commissioner’s Office?

As has been well documented, Google captured personal information relating to thousands of people transmitted over Wi-Fi networks by its Street View cars. As a result, they should have been fined at the highest possible level by the ICO (and, indeed, it’s a great shame that the criminal investigation by the Metropolitan Police has drawn to an inconclusive close).

Instead, the ICO dragged its feet, entirely unwilling to do anything about the issue, reluctantly (after much prodding) sending a couple of non-technical personnel around to Google HQ to look at whatever Google wanted to show them, then promptly letting Google off the hook to the amazement of just about everyone, and finally — prompted only by more effective action by commissioners overseas, which showed that Google was wrong to maintain that they hadn’t captured meaningful data — the ICO has now announced that Google had indeed breached the law, but they weren’t going to do anything about it.

The commissioner’s failure to take action is absolutely disgraceful. There simply cannot be any justification for their approach over the past months, but at this point the easiest thing for the ICO would also be the right thing —  punishing the company that must quietly have been expecting punishment since this story broke. Instead, the ICO stick to their guns, way beyond anything justified by the natural stubbornness anyone feels when a position one’s adopted is challenged.

They were plain wrong on this and they should have been mature enough to admit it, instead of prolonging their embarrassing refusal to take any action for month after month and then producing this absurd “decision”. After all, this isn’t a game, in which they “hold fast” against campaigners like Big Brother Watch. They have a job to do, and the privacy of hundreds of thousands of people — of victims, quite frankly — was at stake. They should have smacked Google as hard as they could.

Instead, ruling that Google has broken the law, but then taking no action against it, shows the commissioner to be a paper tiger. The commissioner is effectively an apologist for the worst offender in his sphere of responsibility, not a policeman of it. Whatever the cause, their decision means open season on your personal data. There will never be a larger invasion of privacy by the private sector in this country than Google’s (to be this intrusive, you normally need government help); if what Google did was OK, then anything goes.

Think for a moment about the ramifications for freedom of expression if you can’t contact someone without the fear of your data being snatched from the airwaves and used as the snatcher wishes.

If Google, the largest beast in the field, can harvest the personal information of thousands of people and get off scot-free, then the ICO plainly has a contempt for privacy and for their duty to protect it. The ICO is good at enforcing freedom of information law and seem to see that as their raison d’etre. Why not leave them with that and give the privacy role to a new office, which might actually care about it?

Alex Deane is the Director of Big Brother Watch