A rare opportunity

by | Mar 10, 2024 | Uncategorised

Last year, the Information Commissioner stitched up a highly paid job for the former General Counsel of Google DeepMind. The job was not advertised and it was created for that person specifically. As far as I can see, there’s no acknowledgement on the ICO website that Trevor Callaghan works for the Commissioner, but a disclosure I found on What Do They Know shows he’s the ‘Director of Strategic Enforcement’.

Up until recently, the Director of Investigations was Steve Eckersley, a well-respected former police officer. Eckersley’s job was advertised last Autumn, but is currently being covered by Anthony Luhman (I know this because he signed the Serco notices as Temporary Investigations Director). The ‘Strategic Enforcement’ job is different and was created in extraordinary circumstances.

Last August, Stephen Almond, Executive Director for Regulatory Risk, wrote a proposal sacrificing two posts that were up for recruitment to pay for the new role. The job was designed to head teams that would “lead a portfolio of enforcement cases against major technology firms” and “execute these cases rapidly and successfully”. Almond’s pitch was scathing about the current enforcement approach blaming “the absence of a single point of experienced leadership in big tech enforcement” for the Commissioner’s lack of action on big tech.

According to Almond, two crucial investigations have had to be delayed or stopped, while more than one ongoing probe is described as “struggling” – the identities of the target organisations have been redacted but Almond’s summary is damning of Edwards’ record in this area. Failure to recruit the new role would “critically undermine” the Commissioner’s ability to enforce on big tech firms.

In the light of this apparently existential challenge, Almond’s solution was remarkable and bizarre: “a rare opportunity has arisen for the ICO to attract a senior individual (the former General Counsel of a global technology firm) to lead this function”. John Edwards, ICO General Counsel Claudia Berg and Deputy Commissioner Stephen Bonner are described as “warmly supportive of the appointment”.

In the private sector, jobs get created all the time – perhaps it’s standard practice at the World Economic Forum where Almond worked before the ICO, but this is very odd for a public sector body, even one as distinctive as the Commissioner. More importantly, while Callaghan worked for Big Tech, I can’t find evidence that he has significant experience of investigations, enforcement, or data protection. His bio as a member of the Open Rights Group’s Advisory Board (which says he still works at DeepMind even though he started at the ICO in September 2023) says before Google, he worked at the law firm Slaughter and May.

If the ICO lacked “a single point of experienced leadership in big tech enforcement”, it still does. Trevor Callaghan doesn’t have such experience according to the only public bio I could find for him. I have no idea why Almond specifically created this job for him or what he offers that means the normal process of recruitment should have been spurned. Almond’s pitch doesn’t even acknowledge how he knows Callaghan or why this supposedly preeminent candidate is on the market. All he says is that the recruitment must happen quickly: the ICO needs to “proceed at pace to secure this hire”.

Given Callaghan’s apparently unique talents, it’s surprising that his appointment hasn’t been given more of a fanfare. According to the FOI response, he started on September 18th 2023 and I can’t find so much as a corporate tweet welcoming him to the ICO family. Despite Almond’s confidence that the new role would lead to a cavalcade of big tech action, Callaghan hasn’t exactly made a big splash.

Time will tell, I suppose. Perhaps the premature announcement of a preliminary enforcement notice on Snap last October was merely the herald for the crackdown on Big Tech that Callaghan’s recruitment will inspire. Almond and his newish hire should partially be judged on results. But this bizarre, unaccountable and opaque appointment deserves a lot more scrutiny. It’s simply unbelievable that Callaghan was the only possible candidate for what is billed as a vital role to take on Big Tech. Both Almond and his boss should face questions about what went on here.