Britain Re-opens Google Street View Probe
June 14, 2012

Britain Re-opens Google Street View Probe

Google will likely 'escape punishment' for gathering private emails, passwords, medical data, web browsing details and other private information from millions of Britons as it mapped out areas of the country in its fleet of Street View vehicles, experts say.

The Internet search giant released sworn declarations from nine engineers involved in the controversial Street View project, who said they were unaware that Street View had been designed to collect such private data.

The documents came to light as a result of a Freedom of Information request, and were released just hours after Britain´s information commissioner announced a fresh investigation into whether Google had staged a cover-up of its collection of the private data.

Eight of the nine Google engineers said they only became aware of the data collection in May 2010, when the company admitted the privacy breach for the first time.

Google has been under pressure to account for the transgression since April, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said that the technology was designed specifically to retrieve information from public Wi-Fi networks as Street View cars photographed private homes.

The FCC acknowledged that the collection did not violate U.S. privacy laws, but that other Google engineers were aware of its data-capture technology.

Google has consistently maintained that the data was gathered by mistake, and was never intended to be used.

A Google spokeswoman told The New York Times on Tuesday that there was a process breakdown in the Street View project, and that the failure of Google´s engineers to review the project was simply a slip-up.

The nine Google engineers produced their testimony last August as part of the FCC´s probe into the matter.   However, the engineer who designed the software invoked his Fifth Amendment right, which protects citizens from being forced to incriminate themselves, and refused to talk to the FCC.

According to the sworn declarations published by Google, one of the unnamed engineers said he had no recollection of reviewing the Wi-Fi project design document, and that it was not his responsibility to do so.

Another engineer said he only became aware of the privacy breach after media reports surfaced about the matter.

"I only became aware that payload data had in fact been collected when various news outlets reported that the Street View vehicles were collecting Wi-Fi communications sent over unencrypted networks, and I frankly thought the reports were wrong,” he said according to the Guardian.

Britain´s Information Commissioner´s Office (ICO) will now review the testimony. The agency submitted a list of seven detailed questions to Google on Monday as part of its attempt to conclusively determine who had knowledge of the collection of private data.

The ICO demanded a “substantial explanation” of why the “pre-prepared” sample of data Google showed investigators did not include the “full user names, telephone numbers, complete email addresses, email headings“¦ medical listings“¦ [and] information in relation to online dating and visits to pornographic sites” discovered by the FCC.

"During the course of our investigation we were specifically told by Google that it was a simple mistake,” the ICO said.

“If the data was collected deliberately, then it is clear that this is a different situation than was reported to us in April 2010,” the ICO said.

Experts say that because the ICO believed Google´s assurances in 2010, the chances of a successful prosecution now are remote, since officials ordered Google to destroy the private data, which wiped out evidence that could be used to prosecute the company.

At the time, the ICO said it was right to destroy the personal data because “there does not seem to be any reason to keep the data concerned for evidential purposes.”

The ICO now says it appears likely that at least some private information was collected by Google as it photographed homes across the country.

Robert Parker, the ICO's head of corporate affairs, acknowledged that the organization´s handling of the matter had drawn criticism, but said that all options are now on the table. The next step, he said, would depend on Google's response to the specific questions the ICO submitted on Monday.

"The stage we're at is we have read the FCC report and we've posed our questions to Google. The questions are pretty clear," he said according to the Telegraph.

Google has so far been cleared of breaching privacy laws with its Street View project in each of the countries that have concluded investigations into the matter.

However, Germany´s privacy regulator, which typically takes a strict view on such matters, has yet to report its findings.