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UK Information Commissioner's office conspired to "bury" negative news story; disturbing revelations on 'international right to know day'

Privacy International today published documentation that establishes a deliberate cover-up by the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) of a failure to uphold its responsibility to enforce the Data Protection Act.

A request under the Freedom of Information Act by PI and No-CCTV has revealed a conflict of interest in the ICO’s mandate and a fundamental failure of process within the Office. The material disclosed proves that the ICO conspired to delay the FOIA request, and attempted to ensure that a significant error of judgment by the Office went unnoticed by the British media. During communications between senior officials at the ICO, strategies for ‘spinning’ the story were discussed, with one member of staff suggesting the Office “bury” it in other news.

The FOIA request concerned a decision made in June 2011, when the ICO threw out a complaint by PI and No-CCTV against a company called ‘Internet Eyes’, a subscription site offering a cash bounty to people who scan online CCTV images and report alleged shoplifters from the comfort of their own homes. The complaint asserted that the company was in breach of data protection laws and that its commercial service was an outrageous violation of personal privacy, but the ICO disagreed, deciding instead to allow the company to proceed subject to signing an ‘undertaking’ of good behavior. PI and NO-CCTV lodged the FOIA request in order to discover the rationale behind that decision – what was revealed was a litany of shortcomings that amounted to a constructed attempt to prevent media coverage of the ICO’s decision to allow Internet Eyes to continue operating rather than to close down this unethical and intrusive business.

Director of Privacy International, Simon Davies, said: “We have criticized the Information Commissioner’s Office for many years over its failure to uphold privacy rights in the UK but this episode has cast a more sinister and disturbing light on the activities of the regulator. 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 and that it has become a danger both to openness and to privacy.”

PI emailed these concerns in detail to the ICO in August 2011 but has yet to receive a response. The organization is now calling for an Inquiry into the ICO’s activity and has urged substantial reform of the body’s operations.

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