Google "surprised" by new Street View probe; denies data cover-up

Summary:Google responds to the U.K.'s data protection agency's question following an FCC report earlier this year, and refutes claims that data was "pre-prepared."

Google said it was "surprised" to learn the U.K.'s data protection authority, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), reopened a case into wireless network data collection from Street View cars.

In a letter dated June 18, made available online by The Telegraph, the search giant bats away the ICO's questions on a point-by-point basis following a letter sent by the authority to Google earlier this month.

But the devil is in the details.

The ICO claimed that Google had "pre-prepared" data collected from the Google's street-level mapping cars as they drove around the United Kingdom.

When the ICO visited Google's offices in July 2010 during its first investigation, the search company turned over a cache of data that was not fully representative of the payload data.

The ICO said Google had "pre-prepared" the data. Google refutes this.

"The data was not 'pre prepared'," Google's global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer wrote in reply to the ICO's enforcement chief Steve Eckersley.

He went on to explain how Google "mounted" the data-filled drive in a Belgian datacenter rather than "pre-preparing" the data, and was simply made "readable" to ICO officials by converting the binary data into plain-text.

Interestingly, a Google spokesperson told the BBC that the ICO "never even looked at" the payload data, despite Eckersley claiming that it had. It seems by Google's own admission in the letter dated June 18, the data had in fact been viewed by ICO officials.

But did Google's managers know about the payload data collection? It says they didn't.

Google said the FCC report and media coverage had suggested there was "widespread knowledge" of the data collection. "That is not the case," wrote Fleischer. He explained a "few people early in the project could have sen some red flags in a document or an email and inquired further."

"But that assumed too much," he added. "But this is a far cry from suggesting that Google’s managers knew about the payload collection."

"Both FCC and US Department of Justice attorneys interviewed individuals who saw or could have seen these red flags, and each individual signed a declaration under oath, confirming that each didn’t learn about the payload collection until May 2010."

What about senior management? Google had an answer for that, too.

"Google has not identified any senior managers who reviewed the software design document or who were 'briefed' by the Engineer or anyone else about the collection of payload data."

Google churned out answer after answer for each question. Summed up, the search giant said it had no idea about any data collection until May 2010, shortly before it was investigated by the ICO the first time around.

At least on the bright side, Google confirmed the data gobbled up by the Street View cars was destroyed in compliance with the ICO's demands, making it trickier to impose heavy financial sanctions on the company.

What could also make the ICO's case somewhat more difficult is that the data collected was minimal.

"The minutes of the ICO’s inspection of this hard drive record that numerous keyword searches were made, but only a minimal amount of data that was even recognisable as English language words was found. The most likely reason why the ICO failed to find any significant personal data is because it was only present in very small quantities on the hard drive concerned."

The investigation continues.

Image credit: Flickr.

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Topics: Google, Government, Government : US

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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