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Street View nod prompts call for privacy watchdog reform

ICO under fire

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Updated Frustrated by years of alleged intransigence in dealing with complaints about privacy-infringing new technologies, activists have called for politicians to investigate and reform the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO).

London-based pressure group Privacy International (PI) said the ICO's response this week to complaints about Google Street View was the final straw.

Giving Street View the all-clear under the Data Protection Act, the regulator said yesterday: "In a world where many people tweet, Facebook and blog it is important to take a common sense approach towards Street View and the relatively limited privacy intrusion it may cause."

PI sharply criticised the decision, claiming it showed it had become "official policy" at the ICO not to stand in the way of business interests. The group wanted Street View to be suspended while the questions over its legal status and the effectiveness of its face-blurring technology were answered.

"The gloves are now off," said PI director Simon Davies. "After ten years of failed complaints and undermining by that office of the core data protection principles, we have decided that there is no further point in trying to educate the officials there."

Over the years the group has written to the ICO about the National DNA Database, fingerprinting in schools and automated number plate recognition. All its complaints have been overruled or shelved.

"We fear that the Commissioner is content to uphold fringe cases of occasional security abuses while allowing new technologies and technologies to cut a vast swathe through privacy," PI said.

PI is not alone in believing the ICO has failed in its duties. The regulator's decision last year not to take any action over BT and Phorm's secret trials of internet interception and profiling systems this month prompted the European Commission to initiate legal proceedings against the UK government. Brussels said the trials were a breach of the ePrivacy Directive, which the ICO is responsible for enforcing.

PI said the regulator lacks the technological expertise to understand the impact of new technologies. It called for an independent advisory board to be urgently established.

Davies said: "The Information Commissioner has clearly decided that pragmatism and commercial interest should triumph over principle. This is a dangerous trend and one that is clearly responsible for Britain's appalling surveillance culture."

The group is now taking advice from MPs and peers on what Parliamentary process could be used to reform the ICO. ®

Update

The ICO sent this response:

The ICO is independent of government, pressure groups and the public and private sectors. We are a balanced and robust organisation that takes a risk based approach to regulation in line with best regulatory practice.

The ICO has led the debate on the surveillance society, cautioned consumers about the value of personal information and is a strong consistent voice on issues such as data security and the growth in government databases.

The ICO has successfully intervened to prevent proposed fingerprinting at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 and issued clear advice on the use of surveillance technology in schools.

We are responsible for enforcing the DPA and FOIA and it is important to recognise that sometimes wider civil liberties and privacy issues are not covered by Data Protection law. We understand that putting images on Google Streetview causes Privacy International concern, but our job is to enforce the law and we are very clear that Google is not breaching the Data Protection Act.

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