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London - Google has been accused of misleading Britain’s privacy watchdog over the scandal of personal data stolen from millions of home computers.
The Information Commissioner on Tuesday night dramatically reopened its inquiry into how the internet giant’s Street View cars harvested vast swathes of personal information from unsecured wi-fi networks.
During its first investigation, Google told investigators that the downloading of data was a “simple mistake”. It escaped with no punishment.
But an investigation by US regulators revealed a company software engineer explicitly designed the programme to collect the data and warned his bosses repeatedly about privacy implications.
The data collected includes user names, passwords, telephone numbers, records of internet chats, medical information and even data from dating sites.
In a letter, the Information Commissioner’s Office said on Tuesday that “it seems likely such information was deliberately captured during the Google Street View operations conducted in the UK.” It demanded a “prompt” reply to seven detailed questions about what went on. The scandal has raised uncomfortable questions for the Government over its close links with the search engine firm.
On Tuesday night, as privacy campaigners accused the company of a cover-up, MPs said the investigation must reveal ‘”hat Google knew and when they knew it”.
Tory MP Robert Halfon welcomed the fresh investigation but said the ICO had been “asleep on the watch”. “They should have investigated this a year ago,” he added. “They clearly need to find out what Google knew and when they knew it.”
When the scandal arose in early 2010, Google said it had accidentally collected very limited numbers of emails, web addresses and passwords as it photographed virtually every street in the UK.
But the US probe, conducted by the Federal Communications Commission, concluded Street View cars collected and stored a raft of private and sensitive information.
The ICO said it is likely similar types of data were collected and stored in the UK. In July 2010, ICO investigators spent just three hours viewing a sample of the data – which it says had been “pre-prepared” by Google – and concluded it did not contain sensitive personal information.
But now, the ICO is demanding a full audit trail of who at Google saw the software design document which spelled out how the data would be collected, and when.
The watchdog has also insisted Google provide a “substantial explanation” as to why personal information was “not included” in the “pre-prepared” data sample.
Nick Pickles, director of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: “Google’s excuses and misdirection are now beginning to quickly unravel, exposing the Street View spy-fi episode as a deliberate and wilful effort to capture sensitive personal data Google was not entitled to.”
If Google is found guilty of breaching the Data Protection Act, it could face a fine of up to £500,000.
But there is a loophole that means any penalty placed on the company could be much lower, because until April 2010 the maximum fine for breaching the Act was £5,000 – and the majority of data was collected by Street View cars before this. on Tuesday night Google insisted it was ‘fully transparent’ with the ICO during its original investigation.
A spokesman added: “We’re happy to answer the ICO’s questions. We have always said that the project leaders did not want and did not use this payload data. Indeed, they never even looked at it.” - Daily Mail