Privacy guardian Christopher Graham finds himself in the public eye

Christopher Graham’s role as information commissioner has seen him achieve a level of recognition he didn’t expect when he took the job in 2009 – but he’s signed up for another two years, says Ian Burrell

Media Editor

For a guardian of the nation’s privacy, Christopher Graham is having to grow used to incursions into his own personal space as the public confronts him on buses and in hotel lobbies with concerns over the safety of their intimate details.

The information commissioner didn’t expect this  level of recognition when he took the job in 2009 but his tenure in what had previously been a relatively low-key post has coincided with a data revolution.

Mr Graham, 63, finds himself interviewed on television about lost medical records, and summoned to the Leveson Inquiry to answer questions about private investigators “blagging” secrets from banks and phone companies. His office has been front-page news after The Independent’s revelations that blue-chip companies are accused of illegally obtaining the public’s private information.

“It’s top of people’s agenda – both citizens and politicians and businesses. Everyone wants to know what the information commissioner is going to do,” he says. Clearly he has enjoyed the experience, because last week it was quietly confirmed that he has signed up for a further two years in the role.

But that doesn’t mean he thinks he has the tools to do what is an increasingly demanding job. He has “pretty limited powers” and is frustrated that some of his office’s recent prosecutions have been thrown out.

“I had one of our fines struck down the other day because I couldn’t prove that dumping all the pensions records in the recycling area of the local supermarket was going to cause serious damage or distress,” he complains, of an attempted prosecution of Scottish Borders council. “I couldn’t prove that someone of malicious intent had picked up all this personal information and was going to be doing people down.”

The information tribunal also rejected his office’s attempts to prosecute Tetrus Telecoms for sending thousands of spam text messages because the judge didn’t accept that substantial damage and distress had been caused.

“We could show there was nuisance – that isn’t enough apparently,” says the commissioner. “We have just got to lower that hurdle because I think if you ask most people they would say silent calls and unsolicited spam texts are one of the great curses of the age – and if the Information Commissioner can’t protect you it’s a poor lookout.”

Under data-protection laws, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) can only bring monetary penalties. Even the criminal offence of unauthorised disclosure or obtaining of personal information (Section 55 of the Data Protection Act) carries only a fine and is often dealt with by a magistrate.

“The track record in the magistrates court is pretty pathetic,” says Mr Graham. If people don’t think this sort of thing matters and if you get to the magistrates court you will be fined about £120, not surprisingly the public doesn’t have great confidence that their personal information will stay secure.”

This lack of confidence, he says, has huge implications for the Government’s plans to improve public-sector  efficiency by moving  services online.

“If you don’t have confidence in the way data controllers will handle all the information they are bound to hold on us these days because we are doing everything online then – surprise, surprise – you don’t have the public confidence for the big data-sharing initiatives that the Government wants to see in the public service.”

Read more: FBI will be asked to investigate corporations accused of illegally accessing data on private individuals
BBC duped into handing over confidential data on 700 licence-fee payers to ‘blaggers’
MPs ‘baffled’ as former Soca agents asked to probe scandal it ignored
Blue-chip hacking scandal - at last, the investigations into those on Soca list begin

More serious cases of information theft – such as the recent prosecution of private eyes ICU Investigations, who received fines of up to £7,000 – are dealt with in crown courts, which can impose unlimited monetary penalties. But jail sentences – which information commissioners have called for since 2006 – are not in the armoury.

“It feels like it’s groundhog day,” says Mr Graham.

A provision for custodial sentences is included in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act but has not been commenced into legislation because, as the commissioner says, it was “caught in the reeds of the Leveson Inquiry”.

Some in Fleet Street appear hostile to the commissioner having more powers, but  Mr Graham accuses them of flawed thinking.

“You can’t have it both ways,” he says. “You can’t say we don’t do this sort of thing and by the way it would be a terrible attack on investigative journalism to commence  this legislation.”

The ICO, which is based in Wilmslow, Cheshire, has not been immune to public-sector cuts and has seen its budget reduced from £5 million, when  Mr Graham arrived, to £3.75 million next year. He is exasperated by “rickety” funding mechanisms which mean he must keep separate spending pots for his two areas of responsibility: promoting freedom of information and maintaining data privacy. Both subjects are attracting growing numbers of complaints.

Mr Graham, who had a long career at the BBC as a radio and television journalist before becoming director general of the Advertising Standards Authority in 2000, would like a new data tax to create a single, ICO fund.

“I would have thought  an information rights levy, paid for by public authorities and data controllers [is needed]. We would be fully accountable to Parliament for our spending.”

Following Edward Snowden’s revelations of GCHQ’s mass collection of personal data (including phone calls, emails and use of social media), Mr Graham has written to Sir Malcolm Rifkind, chair of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee.

“We have said there has got to be a democratic and accountable oversight regime for the security services’ access to data; we have got to understand how it works,” he says. “It’s no longer convincing to have a senior Privy Councillor saying ‘OK chaps, it’s fine’.”

He says the public is more exercised by the NHS England programme of a giant store of individual medical records than it is worried about Snowden.

“People have been challenging me on the bus about That’s the talking point but Snowden hasn’t been, which is kind of a surprise.”

He is critical of the NHS’s efforts to explain the system, saying the ICO had advised individual letters to all patients.

“They said ‘No, we’re going to do a leaflet.’ I never received my leaflet,” he says.

He has the right to compulsory audit of local government organisations which he criticises as “hopeless” in their handling of personal data.

“It just happens far too often, that a social worker loses a memory stick, an unencrypted laptop is taken for home working and gets nicked after being left in the pub,” he says.

ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform