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Chapter: 

Cultural dysfunction

PI has condemned the ICO on countless occasions:

The UK Information Commissioner's Office: A case for justifiable assisted suicide
Privacy International slams ICO on Google Street View
Privacy groups believe BT has been let off the hook by the ICO, which has come under heavy fire from certain corners
Civil liberties groups say UK Information Commissioner's Office is 'not fit for purpose'
PI calls for review of UK privacy regulator following series of failed judgments
What these statements demonstrate is a fundamental tension between the regulator and advocates and a belief that the ICO has failed to advocate for rights and is therefore not fit for purpose.

However the latest disclosures take this tension to a new level. Until now we had understood the ICO to be a fundamentally misguided organisation with a dysfunctional culture. What we now realise is that at least part of the culture is malicious and behaves no better than what you might find in a combative corporate press office. Again, it is crucial to recall that the ICO is a quasi judicial body.

One of the key issues identified by the disclosure is a claimed chaotic and misguided culture within the ICO's organisation. We do not argue that the entire office is hostile to privacy rights, but the prevalence of a culture of negotiation has paralysed an institution and created a culture that is not only in confusion, but also which is in conflict. The ICO enjoys a reputation as "guardian" of rights, and never seeks correction when media describes it in those terms. However when deliberating on issues the Office reverts to a pragmatic framework with an overriding imperative of protecting economic interests.

We are conscious of the complexity of these issues and that in the regulatory context the malaise extends far beyond the ICO. In April 2009 PI issued a statement condemning the ICO's failure of process:

Privacy International believes that alongside the problem of rampant pragmatism within the ICO, the Office lacks appropriate technological awareness. We believe the Office urgently needs to establish a Technical Advisory Board to help it understand the true scale of threats from new technologies… Of equal urgency is the matter of process. If the ICO is to determine public interest and pragmatic reasoning it should publish guidelines to these determinations. It must also demonstrate a greater regard to openness in its dealings with government and commercial organisations.

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While it is true that Privacy International often brings difficult and complex cases to the ICO, it is equally true that the tone of the responses is increasingly defensive and political in nature. We fear that the Commissioner is content to uphold fringe cases of occasional security abuses while allowing new technologies and technologies to cut a vast swathe through privacy.