Big Brother Watch: We can see the merits of independent privacy commissioners

Privacy advocates at Big Brother Watch are taking a rather different view to the populist idea that a single privacy commisoner should rule all.

“We’re open minded. We can see the merits of independent commissioners as long as they use the powers they are given instead of taking a weak approach,” Daniel Hamilton, at the organisation, tells TechEye.  

His comments come as others, including Privacy International, No2ID, ARCH and Genewatch UK, lobby the government in response to the second reading of the Freedoms Bill, which is intended to prevent “unwarranted state intrusion into private lives.”

The Bill proposes the establishment of two new commissioners, one for biometrics and another for CCTV. If this goes ahead this will expand the number of commissioners responsible for privacy and surveillance from three to five.

However, the alliance claims that this “will not necessarily lead to greater protection for the public and may even fracture the protection that already exists.”

They want a clearer process for dealing with information complaints, claiming: “In our view, the only way of providing meaningful oversight of freedom and privacy is to bring all of these commissioners into a single privacy commission.

“This would have many benefits: the current gaps in coverage would be closed; members of the public would understand to whom they should address their questions and complaints; it would potentially save a considerable amount of public money; and it would provide a more future-proof structure, within which future legislation can naturally locate powers and protections related to privacy; whereas the multiplication of commissioners confuses the essential relationship of all these disparate issues.”

However, Big Brother Watch believes that individuals can do a great job, as long as they do not act as a lame duck.

“We share a slightly different view,” said Mr Hamilton.

“The Information Commissioner has proved he can be effective when it comes to certain parts of his responsibilities.

“One example of this is the way he came down on Hillingdon and Ealing Council following the recent data breach. This proves he can be competent in data breaches and enforcing rights.

“However when it comes to examples such as Google and the StreetView issues he failed to use his powers and proved to be weak.

“That said, we’re open minded. We can see the merits of independent commissioners as long as they use the powers they are given instead of taking a weak approach,” he added.

However, the alliance says there is currently no obligation on commissioners to co-operate with each other, nor to interact in any way.

It said that the  creation of a single commission that takes in all of the functions above would ensure that the public were provided with “the comprehensive protection which they are entitled to expect.

“This greater clarity of role and function would make it easy for people to find advice and make complaints,” it added.