ICO accused of burying bad news

The freedom of information watchdog has been accused of trying to “bury” the announcement of an enforcement decision that it hoped would go unnoticed by the press.

A string of emails obtained and published by Privacy International, the pressure group, show senior officials at the Information Commissioner’s Office planned the release of the news for a day it would not attract attention.

The decision that the ICO, which oversees data protection rules, is accused of trying to play down concerned Internet Eyes, a company that offers a bounty to members of the public for watching CCTV footage and catching shoplifters. Privacy International and another privacy watchdog, No-CCTV, had complained that the company violated shoppers’ privacy.

However, the ICO rejected the complaint, asking Internet Eyes to sign an undertaking that it would not break the law.

The ICO then became concerned about how the decision would be received and planned a strategy to minimise the impact of the news.

“It has occurred to us that the ICO may not wish this release to stand out from the crowd – maybe it would be better to send the letter today and publish Wednesday or Thursday this week to ‘bury’ it among others?” wrote Diane Slater, lead case officer at the organisation.

The phrase was an unfortunate echo of one used by Jo Moore, the Labour government adviser who notoriously suggested that the day of the 9/11 terrorist attacks was a good day to bury bad news.

In another email, Kirsty McCaskill, press officer, said: “Yes, we would ideally not want this to attract much publicity.” She confirmed that when sending out the press release “we will try to pick a day when it looks like a busy news day out there”.

The press release went out on June 14 this year, on the same day that the government announced a U-turn on NHS health reforms and teachers voted for a national strike.

Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner, said: “I am satisfied that the ICO acted with complete integrity in the matter of Internet Eyes. We published the results of our inquiry on 14 June with a full news release. Given the complainants’ long track record of media stunts misrepresenting the ICO’s actions it is perhaps understandable that there was consideration of the presentational issues around the publication of the undertaking we had secured.”

Privacy International said the emails “cast a more sinister and disturbing light on the activities of the regulator”, and called for an inquiry into the ICO’s activities.

“There is need for urgent reform to the way the ICO operates. It is clear that the office is now incapable of fulfilling its statutory responsibilities,” said Simon Davies of Privacy International. “It is up to the government to decide if the ICO is fit for purpose. It cannot go on any longer the way it is.”

The group has said it will ask to see correspondence around all of the ICO’s recent decisions under the Freedom of Information Act. This will include details of the ICO’s response to the security breach last year when Google’s Street View service collected unsecured wireless data from thousands of private homes without permission. The ICO had initially decided not to investigate the violation, but reopened the case after other data protection authorities abroad decided to act.

The ICO has been criticised for often taking a softer line on privacy regulation than similar organisations in Europe.

Financial Times, 28 September 2011