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Death to the ICO?

February 3, 2011

Chris Parsons draws my attention to a blog posting on the very swish and refurbished Privacy International site (nice job BTW – I will check in regularly). Simon Davies argues in this post for the ‘assisted suicide’ of the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) because it has become a ‘threat to privacy’. The bases for this argument are several, namely that:

  1. “the legislation that underpins the Office is narrow and in places regressive”;
  2. the ICO is “a quasi judicial regulator that sees its role as protecting data rather than people”, which leads to timid decisions;
  3. the ICO is sometimes “ill-informed… and almost always out of step with the more proactive and advanced regulators overseas” especially when it comes to technology;
  4. its complaints procedure is slow and frequently pointless;
  5. there are too many surveillance-related commissioners in the UK (the Surveillance Commissioner, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, the Equality & Human Rights Commission etc.)
  6. it is disconnected from “an information environment dominated by companies which appear to be largely exempt from local protections for citizens.”

Now, I’ve done some work on commission for the ICO, and therefore you might expect me to defend it from these criticisms. But in fact, I find much to agree with here, as well as some points with which I disagree, and much to ponder.

On the side of agreement,the ICO, like much of government, is undoubtedly technologically rather backward. When, in the Report on the Surveillance Society, we wrote about the way in which governments were behind the times, this was as much a message for them as for parliament or the executive. Maybe it is down to funding, maybe to institutional inertia, maybe deliberate choice, but the ICO has still has not taken serious steps to remedy this as Simon points out, and relies largely on occasional external reports, many of which are in any case general rather than specialist, to update it.

I also agree with the charge that the ICO has been relatively powerless in the face of the rise of corporate surveillance. This is not surprising given its origins as an arm’s-length regulator of government, and some of the particular issues of concern – like whether it took the Google wireless hacking episode seriously enough or made the correct decisions – are far from obvious. But one can clearly contrast the relatively activist stance of even quite bureaucratic Privacy Commissioners like the federal Canadian body over Facebook, with the ICO. It has in the recent past taken some serious actions against illegal private sector surveillance – for example the bust of a notorious blacklisting firm – but this direction appears to have fizzled out. Not being privy to internal policy discussions, I am not sure why.

Then there are some areas in which the criticisms are valid, but which may not be directed at the right target.

The first of these is the proliferation of Commissioners of various kinds – and incidentally, we have thankfully been spared the birth of yet another one with the cancellation of the ID Cards scheme. I have also been arguing for the merging of all the various surveillance-related quangos for a long time. The reason so many of them exist is partly because of the piecemeal way in which British legislative process occurs. There are rarely comprehensive Acts covering broad areas, instead existing institutions, however inappropriate to the job needed, are often merely supplemented or modified. The other reason is of course the ongoing effort to protect certain parts of the state from serious scrutiny, in particular the intelligence services and political police.

The second is that, fundamentally, it seems clear that British data protection and privacy legislation is generally archaic and not up to the job. Neither is its Freedom of Information legislation, even though it was a massive advance on the culture of secrecy that preceded what in retrospect may have been one of New Labour’s most important measures.

However, I am not sure that either of these points are in themselves a criticism of the ICO but rather of the legislation which created it, and the governance environment in which it has to operate. The way in which the ICO came about, through a rough fusion of old Data Protection and newer Freedom of Information functions produced a lumbering Frankenstein’s monster made of parts and bits, kept going on a drip-feed of limited funding, something that was never going to be capable of what campaigners expected of it. The same could be said partially of the critique of the complaints procedure, itself is a widely shared opinion and one with which I would not take issue. However, how much of this is down to the limited funding and staffing, and once again, the foundational legislation which hampers as much as empowers the ICO to do much of what we outsiders would want them to do?

Then, some of the criticisms are more personal opinion, with which I am sure many in the ICO would disagree, particularly the idea that the ICO does not care about people. Both Simon and I know many people in the ICO personally and whatever our political differences with them, the idea that they are heartless data bureaucrats with no interest in people is a rather unhelpful and hyperbolic caricature, as is the idea that the ICO is an ‘enemy of privacy’. The ICO had a legally mandated job to do first and foremost and it needn’t, legally, go beyond that at all. Yet it has. The interventions that the previous Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, made on surveillance in particular were absolutely vital in adding a new level to a debate that had previously, despite the best efforts of activists, campaigners and researchers, been of more marginal concern. One could argue that surveillance and privacy would never have become such a topic parliamentary debate, let along an election issue, without his advocacy. Certainly it hasn’t gone far enough, but is has hardly, during this period at least, acted as a stereotypically uncaring bureaucracy.

So what of the solutions?

Simon advocates only one: that the government “scrap the data protection functions of the ICO and building a new Privacy Act that creates a true watchdog with a broad mandate.” It is hardly surprising that Privacy International see the ‘privacy’ element as the most important one here. Simon will also not be surprised to discover that I disagree with him on this. In fact, my argument for a while has been that privacy cannot justifiably be prioritised over other forms of human informational rights. In addition, the concept of ‘human rights’ in general does not deal with everything about information relationships, positive or negative, and the many elements of those information relationships between state, citizen and corporation cannot be so arbitrarily separated.

I would therefore argue that a comprehensive Information Act, which covered citizens’ rights to information (their own, and that generated by government and corporations), their rights of privacy and the more general parameters of what the state and companies may know of those who information this is and how they are allowed to do so (i.e the limits of surveillance). I agree that ‘data protection’ is an out-of-date concept. But ‘privacy’ does not, and cannot, replace it, at least not alone. Privacy Commissioners, where they exist, find themselves dealing with a lot more than privacy and end up becoming ‘surveillance’ or ‘information commissioners’ in practice or by stealth, and in some cases an emphasis on privacy over all else can hamper legitimate needs to know (as has been true in the case of family members of elderly patients with dementia in Canada for example).

My conclusion about what a new Information Act would contain in terms of the regulatory bodies has something in common with Simon’s view, but I have two options. One is the creation of a single mega-regulator – a real Information Commissioner that covered all the areas of our information relationships with the state and corporations that would be able to go after corporations, local and national government over issues of their secrecy, transparency and accountability, and our privacy and informational needs. It wouldn’t just merge the existing ICO, Surveillance Commissioner, Interception of Communications Commissioner and so on), but start with new legislation and a new structure.

The other option would be a merge all the existing bodies but create two new ones to replace them: a Surveillance and Privacy Commissioner, to cover all of the areas of state and corporate intrusion into the lives of citizens, but also a Freedom of Information Commissioner, to cover the equally vital areas of state and corporate transparency and accountability. Privacy without FoI, whether together in one organisation or separate, is altogether too defensive an approach to what we can expect from the state.

And whichever route one took, the organisation(s) should have a wider range of powers built in and required – research (including technological foresight), advocacy, assessment, response and enforcement functions – with protected funding and legally binding decision-making capability. I think we would all be in agreement on that…

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 4, 2011 9:03 am

    A very good, balanced analysis; as you say, Simon is on target with some of his points, less so with others. In terms of the ICO’s effectiveness, you’re right to note that it has always suffered from the inadequacies both of UK law/policy in this area, and from having weak enforcement powers.

    On that issue, it’s interesting to reflect that ‘privacy’ (and even, to some extent, ‘data protection’) are quite fuzzy concepts – hard to put into clear statements of policy and law even if the policy-makers have the skills and inclination to do so, which up to now, they mostly have not. By comparison, the FSA (Financial Services Authority) has been around longer than the ICO, has a much clearer set of problems to fix, with a clear metric… money. Its first chairman, Howard Davies, was blunt and bullish about his role, especially by comparison with Richard Thomas, say. And yet the FSA has still suffered decades of criticism for its ineffectiveness (Private Eye perennially refers to it as the Fundamentally Supine Authority…).

    I absolutely understand Simon’s reasons for making his case in a somewhat polemical way – but perhaps the ICO deserves a little more credit than he is incllined to offer.

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