MP likens ICO's Google investigation to 'Keystone Kops'

An Information Commissioner's Office inquiry into Wi-Fi data harvesting by Google has been criticised by MP Robert Halfon, who claims investigators lacked technical training

A Conservative MP has criticised an investigation of Google by the Information Commissioner's Office, likening the probe to a farcical comedy.

Robert Halfon said in a statement on Tuesday that the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) had acted like the Keystone Kops — a group of incompetent policemen featured in silent movies from the early 20th century — while investigating data that Google harvested from Wi-Fi networks. The ICO sent data-protection law experts to look at a sample of the data, rather than anyone with technology training, Halfon said.

"I find it astonishing that the information commissioner seemingly did not send technical people to investigate the Google breach of our private data," Halfon said. "The ICO seems more Keystone Kops than protector of our civil liberties. It is extraordinary that the ICO can spend more than £13m on [public relations] over 10 years, but can't find the right resources to investigate breaches of our data protection."

On 28 October, Halfon described the ICO response to Google's collection of Wi-Fi payload data as "lamentable" in a parliamentary debate. The ICO eventually found that Google had breached data protection law after saying that Google had not collected any 'meaningful' personal details. The ICO has repeatedly said it lacks the resources to investigate the full amount of data that Google collected, confining itself to analysing a sample provided by the search giant.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ), which funds the ICO, told Halfon on Monday that the ICO had sent an assistant commissioner and a strategic liaison group manager, who had experience in data protection law.

"As senior data protection staff with considerable experience, the staff who visited Google's offices were qualified to judge whether any of the information collected by Google was meaningful personal data and whether the Data Protection Act was breached. Advanced technical expertise was not needed to determine this," according to the ICO.

However, Cambridge University computer security expert Richard Clayton told ZDNet UK on Wednesday that a technology expert could have asked Google more searching questions.

"A technical expert could have, by question and answer, teased out the possibility that Google may have had more data than it thought," Clayton said.

Campaign group Privacy International told ZDNet on 4 November that the ICO had not sent technical experts to sift through the data.

"The ICO caused immense amounts of damage with its schoolboy investigation," said Privacy International director Simon Davies. "They sent untrained staff into Google. The ICO desperately needs technical support."

The Metropolitan Police (MPS) told ZDNet UK on 5 November that it had dropped its criminal investigation into Google after the ICO investigation had found no personal details in the payload data.

"The MPS has carefully considered the allegations regarding alleged access to online activities broadcast over unprotected home and business Wi-Fi networks and decided it would not be appropriate to launch a criminal investigation," said a police spokeswoman. "The initial statement issued by the Information Commissioner's Office provided a clear indication that the amount of personal data obtained was limited. While the MPS will consider any new information, at this stage we believe that the ICO are best placed to investigate any breaches."


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