Has the Information Commissioner’s Office lost its bottle?

Google breached Data Protection Act but faces no fine.

The news that the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) will not issue Google with a fine for what it described as a "significant breach" of the Data Protection Act has enraged privacy advocates.

The row centres on Google's capturing of data from unsecured wireless networks via the antennae on its Street View cars, which have been touring this and other countries, ostensibly to photograph street scenes. Google said the capturing of data being broadcast on private wifi networks was a mistake, and that it is "profoundly sorry".

Yesterday the Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, said:

"It is my view that the collection of this information was not fair or lawful and constitutes a significant breach of the first principle of the Data Protection Act. The most appropriate and proportionate regulatory action in these circumstances is to get written legal assurance from Google that this will not happen again – and to follow this up with an ICO audit."

Not good enough, say privacy advocates. A letter signed by Privacy International, NO2ID, Big Brother Watch, Action on Rights for Children and the Open Rights Group described the decision merely to audit Google in future as "the latest episode in a litany of regulatory failure that brings disrepute on the Commissioner's Office and which calls into question whether the ICO is fit for purpose".

They argue that the ICO has been inept over the Google case from start to finish. It's not the first time the office has been accused of lacking teeth.

True enough, it was a request for information by the German authorities – the ICO was nowhere to be seen – that first uncovered the harvesting of personal data by Street View cars. And though this came to light in April, the ICO only visited Google to take a look at a sample of the data it had gathered in the UK on 15 July. After that visit, it said:

On the basis of the samples we saw we are satisfied so far that it is unlikely that Google will have captured significant amounts of personal data.

It was only after news that Canada and Spain had both ruled that Google's moves had breached their laws that the ICO announced that it, too, does now believe that Google committed a "significant breach" of the Data Protection Act. Yet, despite that finding, the Information Commissioner's Office has said it won't issue a fine – it has the power to issue fines of up to £500,000 – not least because Google has promised not to do it again.

The letter from the privacy groups fumes:

The ICO has completed a full reversal of its position . . . In our view the ICO is incapable of fulfilling its mandate. The Google incident has compromised the integrity of the Office. We can think of very few substantial privacy issues over the past ten years that the ICO has championed. In most cases the Office has become part of the problem either by ignoring those issues or by issuing bizarre and destructive rulings that justify surveillance rather than protecting privacy.

An ICO spokesperson said that it couldn't issue a fine in this case because it would be hard to prove that the breach had caused "substantial harm or substantial distress". Besides, most of the payload data was captured before 6 April, when the ICO was granted its powers to impose fines of up to £500,000. Case closed.

Jason Stamper is NS technology correspondent and editor of Computer Business Review.

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

Getty
Show Hide image

To preserve the environment we hold in common, everyone has to play their part

The challenge of building a clean future based on the common good of Londoners demands that politicians, business, communities and individuals each take a share of the responsibility and of the benefits.

The environmental challenge facing our capital city can seem overwhelming. Our air is poisonous. Our infrastructure built for the fossil fuel era. The need to build a clean, low carbon future can seem incompatible with competing challenges such as protecting energy security, housing and jobs.

The way we tackle this challenge will say a lot about the type of city we are. We inherit the world we live in from the generations that went before us, and only hold it until it is time to hand it over to future generations. The type of environment we leave behind for our children and grandchildren will be affected by the decisions we need to take in the short term. Our shared inheritance must be shaped by all of us in London.

Londoners currently face some crucial decisions about the way we power our city. The majority of us don't want London to be run on dirty fuel, and instead hope to see a transition to a clean energy supply. Many want to see that clean energy sourced from within London itself. This is an appealing vision: there are upsides in terms of costs, security and, crucially, the environment.

Yet the debate about how London could achieve such a future has remained limited in its scope. Air pollution has rightly dominated the environmental debate in this year’s mayoral election, but there is a small and growing call for more renewable deployment in the city.

When it comes to cities, by far the most accessible, useable renewable energy is solar, given you can install it on some part of almost every roof. Rooftop solar gives power to the householder, the business user, the public servant - anyone with a roof over their head.  And London has upwards of one million roofs. Yet it also has the lowest deployment of solar of any UK city. London can do better. 

The new mayor should take this seriously. Their leadership will be vital to achieving the transition to clean energy. The commitments of the mayoral frontrunners should spur other parts of society to act too. Zac Goldsmith has committed to a tenfold increase in the use of solar by 2025, and Sadiq Khan has pledged to implement a solar strategy that will make the most of the city’s roofs, public buildings and land owned by Transport for London.

While the next mayor will already have access to some of the tools necessary to enact these pledges (such as the London Plan, the Greater London Assembly and TfL), Londoner’s must also play their part. We must realise that to tackle this issue at the scale and speed required the only way forward is an approach where everyone is contributing.

A transition to solar energy is in the best interests of citizens, householders, businesses and employees, who can begin to take greater control of their energy.  By working together, Londoners could follow the example of Zurich, and commit to be a 2,000 watt society by 2050. This commitment both maximizes the potential of solar and manages introduces schemes to effectively manage energy demand, ensuring the city can collectively face an uncertain future with confidence.

Unfortunately, national policy is no longer sufficient to incentivise solar deployment at the scale that London requires. There is therefore an important role for the incoming Mayor in facilitating and coordinating activity. Whether it is through TfL, existing community energy schemes, or through individuals, there is much the mayor can do to drive solar which will benefit every other city-dweller and make London a cleaner and healthier place to live.

For example the new mayor should work with residents and landlords of private and social housing to encourage the deployment of solar for those who don’t own their property. He should fill the gap left by national building standards by ensuring that solar deployment is maximized on new build housing and commercial space. He can work with the operator of the electricity grid in the capital to maximize the potential of solar and find innovative ways of integrating it into the city’s power demand.

To bring this all together London should follow the example set by Nottingham and Bristol and create it’s own energy company. As a non-profit company this could supply gas and electricity to Londoners at competitive prices but also start to drive the deployment of clean energy by providing an attractive market for the power that is generated in the city. Community schemes, businesses and householders would be able to sell their power at a price that really stacks up and Londoners would receive clean energy at competitive prices.

The challenge of building a clean future based on the common good of Londoners demands that politicians, business, communities and individuals each take a share of the responsibility and of the benefits. Lets hope the incoming Mayor sees it as their role to convene citizens around this aim, and create incentives to virtue that encourage the take up and deployment of solar, so that we have a healthy, clean and secure city to pass on to the next generation.