Google  Revolving door

Boss at data watchdog that 'let off' Google in much-derided probe gets a job... at Google!

By Kirsty Walker

PUBLISHED: 02:34, 7 July 2012 | UPDATED: 02:34, 7 July 2012

A senior official at the data watchdog which ran a much-derided probe into privacy breaches by Google has taken a job with the internet giant, it emerged last night.

Stephen McCartney was a senior official at the Information Commissioner’s Office during its investigation into Google’s Street View road-mapping service.

The investigation centred on claims Google had deliberately allowed the cars used to collect pictures of the UK’s streets to harvest personal data from millions of residents’ home computers along the way.

In 2010, following an inquiry that lasted just three hours, the ICO cleared Google. Eighteen months later, Mr McCartney joined Google as its privacy manager.

But his close relationship with the ICO remained and in May he even emailed his former colleagues to complain about media reporting of the case. Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner, responded to the email with a message saying: ‘Thanks for this, Stephen.’

Last night the ICO insisted there had been no conflict of interest because Mr McCartney was not involved in the original investigation.

But Tory MP Robert Halfon said the appointment raised questions about the watchdog’s ‘cosy relationship’ with Google.

‘This is a pretty shocking revelation,’ he said. ‘It raises more questions about the Information Commissioner than it does Google because clearly the ICO has been asleep on their watch on this issue. Now it seems they [the ICO] have had a cosy relationship with the company they have been investigating.’

In May, the ICO was accused of being ‘caught napping’ over the data-harvesting claims. 

Google leadership Larry Page, Sergei Brin and Eric Schmidt in one of the company's fleet of self-driving cars

Comfortable ride: Bosses Larry Page, Sergei Brin and Eric Schmidt in one of the company's self-driving cars

It was revealed to have designated its audits into Google’s privacy policy as ‘low priority’ simply because the firm’s attitude was co-operative. Last month, it was forced to re-open the inquiry.

Google has sent the vehicles through streets around the world, capturing 360-degree footage using special cameras on the roof. People who log on to the website can then view images of these locations. But equipment in the vehicles also harvested personal computer data from unsecured wi-fi networks.

The ICO’s handling of the case emerged when a former senior member, Phil Jones, revealed it had not wanted to spend money on hiring a computer expert to analyse the material fully.

Instead he and a colleague spent just over two hours at Google’s London offices looking at a small sample of the data. On the basis of the inquiry Google was allowed to destroy the information without further investigation – and avoided a fine.

By contrast, investigators in France, Holland, Germany and Canada, ordered Google to preserve the data until it could be properly examined.

Huge violations of privacy were uncovered, including passwords, banking transactions, a psychological report on a child, and emails about an extra-marital affair.

Mr McCartney was head of data protection promotion at the ICO where he had worked, according to his LinkedIn profile, since 2004.

An ICO spokesman said: ‘Employees continue to be bound by a confidentiality agreement after they leave the organisation, as part of the Data Protection Act.’

A Google spokesman said: ‘We do not comment on individual employees.’