Billy Hawkes: The Irishman with a billion people’s privacy to protect

Several internet giants have their European base in Ireland, which is where Billy Hawkes comes in

Media Editor

From an office above a supermarket in a small town in County Laois, Billy Hawkes is charged with protecting the data and privacy of more than a billion Internet users around the world.

As the Data Protection Commissioner for Ireland, Hawkes has assumed responsibility for safeguarding the data of 990 million Facebook users outside of the United States, not to mention 175 million users of the business-based social media site Linked In and the users of numerous other global Internet services that have moved their European headquarters to Ireland in recent years.

Hawkes, 62, never signed up for this when he took the job of DPC in 2005 when the office was seen as a domestic service. It was moved to Portarlington (population 7,500), a 50-mile train ride from Dublin, as part of the Irish government’s policy of relocating more public bodies outside the capital. Since Google based its European HQ in Ireland in 2003 – taking advantage of corporation tax cut to 12.5 per cent – the country has become home to a technology sector that employs 105,000 people and accounts for 40 per cent of annual exports. Companies with their European HQs in Ireland include Facebook, Apple, Linked In, Twitter, eBay and PayPal. Hawkes must ensure that they handle their data correctly.

“We have acquired oversight responsibility of companies that can be quite controversial and process a lot of personal data,” he said. “It means we are in the international spotlight in a way that we would not have been when I took this job and are sometimes being accused of not being sufficiently vigorous.”

The DPC has its critics. Joe McNamee of European Digital Rights, a civil rights group, told business website Quartz that the commissioner’s office allowed companies to “do whatever they want with personal data”.

Hawkes’ team of 22 staff has been slightly increased to 30 and his budget has grown from €1.5m to €2m. “At the moment we are satisfied that we have the resources to deal with what’s on our plate. As more and more complex companies declare jurisdiction in Ireland, we will have to look more carefully again,” he said.

A DPC audit of Linked In is currently being finished and others will follow at Apple and Adobe as matters of standard procedure.

Hawkes rejects the idea that his office is a soft touch. “We have very strong enforcement powers, some of the strongest of any data protection authority.” Unlike his opposite number in the UK, he has powers to audit private firms and can order dawn raids on non-compliant companies.

One international data processing firm has been closed down by the DPC, pending an improvement in its practices. But usually Hawkes prefers a more subtle approach. “Most of our work is done behind closed doors without publicity but with the outcome being exactly what we want,” he said.

As for the remote location of his desk, that’s a “non-issue”, according to the protector of much of the world’s data privacy. “We have a totally modern and functional open plan office and, because these days people operate electronically, where we are physically based doesn’t matter,” he said.

“There has been some sneering about where we are located, but the ground floor just happens to be occupied by a supermarket. It doesn’t really alter anything.”

Sport
Premier League Live
footballLIVE Follow all the Premier League action as it happens
News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + echSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
News
James Argent from Towie is missing, police say
peopleTV star had been reported missing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    C# Algo-Developer (BDD/TDD, ASP.NET, JavaScript, RX)

    £45000 - £69999 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Algo-Develo...

    Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, Apache Mahout, Python,R,AI)

    £60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

    Java Developer - 1 year contract

    £350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

    Junior Analyst - Graduate - 6 Month fixed term contract

    £17000 - £20000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone