Posts Tagged ‘Information Commissioner’

Public call for stronger data protection

Friday, November 26th, 2010

UK Information Commissioner Christopher Graham has handed out the first fines for breaches of the Data Protection Act saying they will “send a strong message” to those handling data.

The commissioner was given the ability to fine organisations up to £500,000 for breaching the Act earlier this year. Hertfordshire County Council was fined £100,000 for sending two faxes regarding a child sex abuse case to the wrong recipient. Sheffield-based company A4e was fined £60,000 after a computer containing the unencrypted data of 24,000 people was lost. Both incidents occurred in June.

In these cases, both organisations came forward of their own accord. In some American states such as California, revealing breaches such as this is mandatory The system in the UK is currently voluntary although a recent poll published by LogRhythm showed that 80 percent of people wanted more stringent laws regarding data breaches.

Out of the 5000 people surveyed, 31 percent even suggested that company directors should be subject to criminal proceedings. Many have welcomed the commissioner’s step towards protecting sensitive data. The Financial Times referred to Graham as a “privacy watchdog chief with a bite”, and noted that the announcement follows criticism of the ICO’s handing of the Google Street View data collection controversy.

Perhaps the ICO is trying to prove it is a watchdog with teeth.

Fragile flower shows its power

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

The outgoing Information Commissioner Richard Thomas released a statement via his private PR company (paid for at public expense) this morning in which he urges Whitehall and the public sector to learn the lessons from the MPs’ expenses scandal and routinely publish more official information without waiting to be asked.

“The Freedom of Information Act has been seen as a somewhat fragile flower for most of its lifetime. It has now come of age and moved centre stage – a permanent fixture and a core part of the fabric of public life. The recent uproar over MPs’ expenses has cemented FOI’s reputation as a success story. Over the last four years a much wider range of other information has been disclosed up and down the country. It is a key channel for securing substantially improved transparency and accountability. The surprise is no longer the nature and extent of disclosure. What is astonishing is how much was previously treated as secret.

“There is now much talk of constitutional reform and re-connecting people with politics. Freedom of Information must be embedded within this debate. It is a defining feature of modern democracy – a stark reminder that those elected to power and their officials are accountable to the people. The public has the right to know what is done in their name and with their money. Transparency brings greater public understanding and less scope for impropriety or for decisions or activities to be taken behind closed doors which jeopardise public confidence.”

All very well but why has it taken him until now to understand the value of freedom of information? And on the eve of his departure? Everything Thomas says in this statement was obvious to anyone with eyes to see. In fact, this statement reads like a re-write from my introduction to the first edition of Your Right to Know – which is very flattering but as I always say: where’s the action?

The Information Commissioner still refuses to proactively publish his case log meaning that whenever anyone wants to know the extent of his considerable backlog they have to take time out of their busy day to file an FOI request. Why? The Scottish Information Commissioner has no such qualms and every case on his list is there for all the world to see.

If the Commissioner is to maintain his credibility he must proactively publish his case log now.

Thunderer: This Man Must Be Watched

Tuesday, October 31st, 2006

The Times and Sunday Times published a series of articles over the last few days taking a critical look at the work of the Information Commissioner. The flagship piece was an interview with Richard Thomas, the incumbent commissioner, which dealt mainly with scares about government surveillance and criminals gaining access to your bank account.

The Sunday Times leader article picked up on one disturbing issue Mr Thomas steered well clear of in his interview – the tendency for politicians and other powerful figures to hide behind the Data Protection Act, turning the investigation of their dodgy dealings by journalists into a prisonable offence.

My article in the Times ‘Thunderer’ column highlighted a particular weakness of the Information Commissioner: his dependence on the patronage of the Department of Constitutional Affairs:

This man must be watched
The Times, Thunderer October 30, 2006
By Heather Brooke

The man who stands between us and Big Brother has just woken to the fact that we live in a surveillance society. Not before time. But what can Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, do to give us back some personal privacy away from the State’s prying eyes?

Not a lot. Mr Thomas told The Times on Saturday that he’s worried about the Government’s plan for total information convergence – the central control of records on every single child, our health, run-ins with the police, our DNA, taxes and identity.

It can’t be long before these data are used to target people in myriad ways. Already we have seen the Terrorism Act used to intimidate and arrest those who speak out against Government. How much easier it will be for politicians once they know everything about us, down to our cellular structure.

Mr Thomas’s pronouncements are few and cloaked in that mealy-mouthed deference common to bureaucrats – but to pick on him is to kick a kitten. Weak laws, weakly enforced are only partly his fault.

How I’d love to see someone with chutzpah become the next Information Commissioner. Someone such as Eliot Spitzer, the New York attorney-general, who takes his role as populist protector seriously, taking on all comers from Merrill Lynch to Enron. If he were to discover banks leaving bags of statements on the pavement he’d do more than unleash a fusty press release.

But of course, in England, our regulators are neutered. The people cannot have real power, only the semblance of power. Mr Thomas must always have one eye on his political paymasters, for his position is closer to patronage than independence. His budget and staffing salaries are controlled by the Department for Constitutional Affairs.

That’s Cheeky Charlie Falconer’s department – the same man who wants to smother our new-born Freedom of Information Act. The Government has an interest in keeping the commissioner’s office weak. If it is underfunded and understaffed then it cannot hold the Government rigorously to account.

In Scotland the commissioner answers only to Parliament. So it should be in England. Without a fully independent information commissioner we can expect to find our privacy rights shredded at the expense of a Big Brother state.

Read all the articles:

Article: Journalists and wiretapping

Friday, August 11th, 2006

Living in a Stalinist blackout
The Times, Thunderer 11 August 2006
By Heather Brooke

The Information Commissioner thinks that journalists should be imprisoned for up to two years for paying private detectives to obtain information. This same commissioner took almost two years to fudge a decision on the release of the Attorney-General’s advice on the Iraq war – more than a year after it had been leaked. And that’s one of the more optimistic examples of how long it takes reporters to access official information legitimately.

No wonder British journalists resort to nefarious means to get information that in other countries is freely available. It amazes me that hacks manage to ferret out any hard news in such a Stalinist blackout.

If you think bugging phones is amoral or shady then think about the kind of society that restricts freedom to such an extent that this is the only way a member of the public – journalists have no more rights than you – can get his hands on information in a timely way.

How else can a reporter investigate the Royal Family when it is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, virtually unaccountable to Parliament and all its staff must sign a fearsome gagging order? There is no legitimate way to get facts on the Royal Family. We don’t even know how much taxpayers’ money it sucks up. The cost of keeping the Queen as head of state was £36.7 million in 2005, according to the Keeper of the Privy Purse. But this omits the immense cost of security, tax breaks and income generated from assets deemed to be held for the nation, but that the nation cannot see, such as art in the Royal Collection.

Some say that the Royal Family ought not to be held to public account. Fine. But what about the police, courts and Whitehall? Surely we have a right to know what they are up to? Not so. Criminal and court records, arrest bookings and police incident reports are the bread and butter of American journalism. Such records are used to check facts and examine the truth of official rhetoric. In the UK, all this information is off-limits. Even getting a list of local council restaurant inspections can take almost a year. If such information is suppressed what hope is there for investigating more serious issues?

Don’t mistake the authorities’ crackdown as a matter for journalists alone. When those who are paid to dig out facts find it nigh impossible to do so legitimately, no one else stands a chance.

Transport for London complaint

Friday, November 26th, 2004

My complaint to the Information Commissioner resulted in an article in today’s Guardian by Hugh Muir: Secrecy rebuke over contracts for tube.

See the full article here.

The complaint involved TfL’s failure to make public its controversial public-private partnership contracts and funding formula for the Tube, which it had committed to doing so by January 2004 in its legally binding Publication Scheme.

While it is admirable that TfL agreed to publish these contracts (many public authorities are still refusing to do so) the fact remains that a commitment to openness is not the same as actual openness. The public faces the ultimate burden of funding this controversial way of running London’s tube and we have a right to know how our money is being spent.

I first asked for these contracts last spring. My requests were ignored for several months. Finally, the Freedom of Information Officer wrote back apologising for the delay. “It’s been partly caused by ill health and a handover to a new FOI Publication Scheme Coordinator,” he said. He couldn’t give me the contracts, but helpfully informed me that, “This issue has been escalated within General Counsel for resolution.” I’ve no idea what this means but it certainly doesn’t mean quick action. By July, I still hadn’t received an answer.

I then filed a complaint with the Information Commissioner who is the watchdog for the Freedom of Information Act, Data Protection and soon the new Environmental Information Regulations. It took four months, several chasing emails and telephone calls before I received the result of their investigation on 5 November.

Frankly this is unacceptable. If this is the kind of time-period on offer when there are almost no cases, what can we expect after 1 January 2005 when the Information Commissioner begins receiving the suspected “onslaught” of cases?

I asked Information Commissioner Richard Thomas about this delay on Thursday at a Parliamentary meeting and he told me he was surprised at the length of time the investigation took and would look into it.

Meanwhile, Transport for London is now quite helpful, and I am scheduled to look through the contracts next week. I will post the results here.