Thunderer: This Man Must Be Watched

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.

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2 Responses to “Thunderer: This Man Must Be Watched”

  1. Decay says:

    The good old Times, late as ever to any important issue. Thomas, a hero of our times, has been banging on about this for ages.

  2. heather says:

    I’ve been writing about the 1984-style surveillance on offer in the UK for donkey’s years. The problem isn’t the Times but rather the lamb-like passivity of the great British public.

    Of which you seem to be a member if you think Thomas is a ‘hero of our times’.

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