Google Wi-Fi snooping probe back on despite deletion of vital data

The Information Commissioner's Office will not receive many meaningful answers from Google in its reopened Street View investigation due to a decision in 2010 to allow Google to destroy evidence, according to a privacy campaigner
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

The UK's data-protection watchdog has reopened its investigation into Google's unsolicited Street View data collection, but it will be hampered by an earlier decision to allow Google to delete raw payload data, a privacy consultant has said.

The  Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) reopened the investigation after a US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) report found that Google had intercepted a wide range of personal data using its Street View mapping cars. The ICO wrote to Google on Tuesday to request information about whether the company had harvested personal data from unsecured UK Wi-Fi connections while gathering information for its Street View mapping service.

Google Street View car

The Information Commissioner's Office has reopened its investigation into the capture of unsecured household data by Google Street View cars. Photo credit: Byrion on Flickr

"Please list precisely what type of personal data and sensitive personal data was captured within the payload data collected within the UK?" ICO head of enforcement Steve Eckersley wrote in the letter to Google vice president Alan Eustace.

There's no data to see now. There are two parties to blame here — Google, obviously, but also the ICO for being so lax.
– Alex Hanff, privacy consultant

However, the ICO gave the go-ahead in 2010 for Google to destroy the raw UK data it had collected, making it difficult for Google to comply with the request, and impossible for the ICO to check any claims made by Google about the data, privacy consultant Hanff, who has a history of campaigning on privacy issues, told ZDNet UK on Tuesday.

"The raw data has been destroyed — that has been independently verified," Hanff said. "There's no data to see now. There are two parties to blame here — Google, obviously, but also the ICO for being so lax."

An ICO spokesman on Tuesday denied that the ICO investigation will be hampered by its earlier decision to allow Google to delete the raw data.

"You can have destroyed data, and still have records," said the spokesman.

Google responded to the ICO's request on Tuesday, saying that senior managers had not looked at the payload data. "We're happy to answer the ICO's questions," Google said. "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."

In 2010, the ICO declared that Google had collected "no meaningful details" in the course of its Street View data gathering — findings which led the Metropolitan Police to drop a criminal investigation into Google. However, the ICO subsequently concluded that Google had in fact been in significant breach of UK data laws following investigations by its European counterparts.

Google signed an ICO undertaking in November 2010 to train staff in the use and handling of data. The ICO will further audit Google this year.

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