ICO Named ‘Keystone Kops’ Over WiSpy Investigation


Members of the Information Commissioner’s Office have been labelled as Keystone Kops by a Tory MP for their investigation of Google

Conservative MP Robert Halfon has launched a fresh attack on the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), after it emerged that it had send lawyers, not technical staff, to investigate Google’s Wi-Fi data breach.

Google had been given the all clear by the ICO back in July and escaped any punishment, after the search engine giant admitted in May that its Street View cars had taken Wi-Fi “payload” data.

The ICO said at that time that the data collected could not be linked to any individuals.

No Evidence

“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,” the ICO said at that time. “There is also no evidence as yet that the data captured by Google has caused or could cause any individual detriment.”

However in late October Google admitted that its Street View cars had actually taken more personal data by Wi-Fi than first thought. This so-called “WiSpy” data included complete URLs, emails and passwords.

This led Information Commissioner Christopher Graham to launch a new investigation into Google.

However Robert Halfon MP opened a backbench debate in Parliament on an “Internet bill of rights” to protect individuals online, during which he took issue with the ICO over its response to the Google WiSpy incident.

Halfon reportedly called the UK Information Commissioner “lily-livered”. And prior to that debate, he told the BBC that Google had “gone too far” and the ICO’s lack of action was “lamentable”.

However the ICO quickly rejected the claims and said it will “not be panicked into a knee jerk response” because of pressure from MPs.

Parliamentary Questions

But Halfon was not prepared to simply let this matter slide, and tabled a question in Parliament, asking how many staff the ICO had sent to investigate Google back in July and what their technical qualifications were.

And the answers were forthcoming from Parliamentary under secretary Jonathan Djanogly, who based his answers on information provided by the ICO.

“Two staff from the Information Commissioner’s Office participated in the visit to Google’s headquarters in July 2010,” said Djanogly in a written reply, according to Hansard. “As an assistant commissioner and a strategic liaison group manager, they were both senior staff with considerable experience in data protection law.”

Djanogly also revealed that the ICO staff had selected the sample payload data which was examined during their visit to Google headquarters. But Djanogly answers made no mention of the technical expertise of the ICO staff who visited Google, other than them being lawyers. And it seems that the July meeting only lasted two-and-a-half hours.

This infuriated Halfon, who then launched a fresh attack on the ICO.

Keystone Kops

“I find it astonishing that the Information Commissioner seemingly did not send technical people to investigate the Google breach of our private data,” Halfon told the Guardian newspaper.

“The ICO seems more Keystone Kops than protector of our civil liberties. It is extraordinary that the ICO can spend £13m on PR over 10 years but can’t find the right resources to investigate breaches of our data protection,” he said.

Last week the information commissioner, Christopher Graham did a u-turn and admitted that Google’s Wi-Fi snooping was a “significant breach” of UK Laws.

However he said it will not be fining the search giant but will monitor the company closely in future.

Update: earlier versions of this article referred to the “Keystone Cops”. In fact the correct spelling is “Keystone Kops“, and we’re very pleased to spontanously correct it, because that is the kind of people we are.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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