Google facing new WiFi 'snooping' investigation
PRIVACY watchdogs face renewed calls to investigate Google over the way its Street View cars secretly harvested emails, photographs and other personal data from WiFi networks.
The UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which is responsible for enforcement of the Data Protection Act, said it was studying a report on the incident by the Federal Communications Commission, its United States counterpart.
The report, published last month, cast doubt on claims by Google that it had only inadvertently harvested personal data.
The FCC said a Google engineer had created the necessary software and “intended to collect, store and review payload data for possible use in other Google projects”. The software intercepted snippets of information from unsecured WiFi networks as the Street View fleet passed almost every home in Britain in 2009 and 2010.
It is thought as many as one in four home networks is unsecured.
The engineer, who declined to cooperate with the FCC investigation citing his right to avoid self-incrimination, was later identified as Marius Milner, a 41-year-old British wireless networking specialised based in California. Google had previously claimed he had acted without the knowledge or authorisation of senior managers, but investigators found he had circulated details of his plans.
The ICO conducted its own investigation of Google’s privacy practices when the Street View scandal came to light in 2010, and accepted the firm’s claims it had been a mistake and that controls would be tightened. The deal drew heavy criticism from privacy campaigners at the time.
Today a spokesman for the ICO said: “We are currently studying the FCC report to consider what further action, if any, needs to be taken.
“Google provided our office with a formal undertaking in November 2010 about their future conduct, following their failure in relation to the collection of WiFi data by their Street View cars.
“This included a provision for the ICO to audit Google’s privacy practices. The audit was published in August 2011 and we will be following up on it later this year, to ensure our recommendations have been put in place.”
Nick Pickles of the Big Brother Watch campaign said “all too often consumers find themselves without redress when their rights are compromised”.
Google, which was fined for impeding the FCC’s investigation, has said it wants to “put the matter behind us”.
“While we disagree with some of the statements made in the document, we agree with the FCC's conclusion that we did not break the law,” a Google spokesman said.