The Information Commissioner’s Office has been accused of having a “cosy relationship” with Google after it was revealed that the online giant’s privacy chief held a senior role at the ICO when it originally probed Street View.
The claims – which have been strenuously denied by both parties – will be an embarrassment to the ICO, which just yesterday attempted to show a much tougher stance against rogue businesses, when it published its annual report.
A Freedom of Information request reported by the Guardian shows that Steven McCartney left the ICO – which was slammed for its initial investigation into Google privacy breaches – to join Google in November 2011.
The ICO has stressed that McCartney “played no part” in the investigations, while Google has refused to comment on “individual employees”.
But Conservative MP for Harlow Rob Halfon said that the news was a “shocking revelation”. “Now it seems they [the ICO] have had a cosy relationship with the company they have been investigating.”
McCartney, who had worked at the ICO since 2004, was head of data protection promotion. During this time, the ICO conducted an investigation into allegations that Google had knowingly gathered personal data while collecting photographs as part of its Street View mapping project.
The ICO ruled that there had been a “significant breach” of the Data Protection Act, but opted not to fine the company. It has since emerged that several Google staff had been told that data was being collected, prompting the ICO to reopen its inquiries.
After joining Google, McCartney shared email correspondence with ICO officials discussing issues relating to the ongoing probe.
The FoI dossier, obtained by campaigner Peter John, showed McCartney had outlined what he had said were “significant errors” in the media’s reporting of the issue in an email dated 4 May 2012. Information Commissioner Christopher Graham responded to the email with “thanks for this, Stephen”.
In a statement, the ICO said: “The published correspondence between Google and the ICO clearly shows that Stephen McCartney was treated like any other organisation’s representative, with his emails receiving nothing more than a polite acknowledgement.”
The spokesman added: “ICO employees continue to be legally bound by a confidentiality agreement after they leave the organisation, as part of the Data Protection Act. Stephen Eckersley, the ICO’s Head of Enforcement, continues to investigate Google’s actions with regard to the Street View project.”
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