MP Rob Halfon said the Information Commissioner was hampered when it tried to take action against Google in the spring- but has since been given more powers.
The UK information commissioner was prevented from taking stronger action against Google earlier this year after its Street View cars collected sensitive wifi because the Data Protection Act at the time limited his powers.
Rob Halfon, the Conservative MP for Harlow, revealed yesterday the information commissioner, Christopher Graham, told him his office was hampered by existing UK data protection legislation when it came to taking action against Google.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has since been given extra powers to fine organisations up to £500,000 for “serious breaches of the Data Protection Act”.
Google admitted to “mistakenly” collecting the data in May, sparking criminal and privacy investigations in a number of countries including the UK.
Graham was criticised for ruling in July that Google was unlikely to have collected “significant amounts” of personal data or data likely to “cause any individual detriment”, despite an ongoing criminal investigation in the UK and contradictory findings by equivalent bodies in other countries.
Google last week admitted the data harvested when its Street View cars photographed residential areas was more sensitive than initially thought. The ICO subsequently said it will re-examine the data following the revelations.
“In the view of the UK information commissioner, who examined the Google computers, there was really nothing to worry about [at the time],” Halfon said, during an MPs’ debate about privacy and the internet held in Westminster Hall.
“I have subsequently spoken to the information commissioner. His view is that he would have liked to take stronger action against Google, but that his office was constrained by the Data Protection Act 1998,” he added.
“Perhaps this is true. But why did he not say so at the time? … Indeed, their public announcement in July was all the more surprising given the actions of foreign governments.”
An ICO spokesman confirmed after the debate in the Commons that the information commissioner had subsequently been granted extra powers.
“On 6 April 2010 the Information Commissioner’s Office was given the power to issue monetary penalty notices, requiring organisations to pay up to £500,000 for serious breaches of the Data Protection Act. As the Google Street View data breach occurred before this date, even if it was appropriate, we would be unable to use this enforcement power on this occasion,” he said.
The news will anger privacy watchdogs who called the original ICO ruling “farcical”. Halfon said the body’s action had been “lamentable and lily-livered”.
Ed Vaizey, the culture minister, revealed during the debate that the Metropolitan police “have decided it would not be appropriate to launch a criminal investigation” over Google’s data breach.
Vaizey said he will meet with the information commissioner next week “to discuss what he intends to do as the next step, certainly what he intends to do about the data, but also what he intends to do in terms of Google’s breach of data protection”.