GOOGLE could be the first company to incur a heavy fine under British privacy laws, after admitting downloading private emails and passwords.
The UK's information commissioner, Christopher Graham, announced yesterday that he is launching a new investigation into the 'Street View' project, in which Google sent cars around photographing residential areas. In the process, they "mistakenly" collected emails and passwords from private computers on wireless networks.
The breach of privacy has infuriated campaigners. Alex Deane, director of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: "As if building up a database of photographs of millions of people's private homes wasn't enough, the news that Google has also 'harvested' email addresses and passwords is nothing short of outrageous."
Six months ago, Mr Graham was granted new powers by the outgoing Labour government, including the authority to hand out fines of up to £500,000 (€560,000) for breaches of privacy. Although Google, which has an annual turnover of almost £14bn (€15.6bn), could easily absorb the fine, the publicity would be highly embarrassing for a company founded on the informal corporate motto "don't be evil".
A statement from Mr Graham's office yesterday said that he would demand information from the company about any invasions of the privacy of British residents.
Google apologised for the breach and said it is tightening up its internal security and privacy policies.
This includes the recent appointment within the company of a director of privacy, Alma Whitten.
"We are profoundly sorry for having mistakenly collected payload data from unencrypted networks," Ms Whitten said. yesterday
"As soon as we realised what had happened, we stopped collecting all Wi-Fi data from our Street View cars and immediately informed the authorities. "This data has never been used in any Google product and was never intended to be used by Google in any way," she added.