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Google responds to UK Street View investigation, says it's 'surprised' by ICO probe

Google responds to UK Street View investigation, says it's 'surprised' by ICO probe


Google has responded to a recently reopened UK investigation into its Street View data gathering practices, arguing that it has been forthright and transparent with data authorities.

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Google HQ street view
Google HQ street view

Last week, the UK Information Commissioner’s Office reopened an investigation into Google's Street View service, on suspicions that the company may have been less than honest about its data gathering practices. Now, Google has responded to the ICO with a lengthy letter from its Global Privacy Counsel, Peter Fleischer.

In the letter, published in full by The Telegraph, Google responds to specific assumptions and questions the ICO posed earlier this month — specifically, those that implied that Google "pre prepared" its payload data before handing it over to authorities. The search giant insists that it never tampered with or touched any collected data, which included passwords and messages that its Street View cars gathered from unsecured WiFi networks. Google went on to say that the only time it intervened was to render these data human-readable.

Google also responded to suggestions, fueled by an FCC report published in April, that knowledge of Street View data gathering was "widespread" within the company. "That is not the case," Google declared, adding that only "a few people" could have noticed something awry with the Street View project. These individuals, moreover, have testified that they only became aware of the problem in the Spring of 2010, at which point Google claims to have ceased all data collection itself. Earlier reports, however, show that European authorities were the first to uncover the privacy breach, even as Google continued to deny its existence.

"no payload data was ever used in any product or service."

The company acknowledged that it missed opportunities to identify the problem earlier, though it insists that the purpose of its "Wi-Fi collection was to identify wireless access points for location-based services." According to Google, "no project leader asked for or wanted the payload data; and no payload data was ever used in any product or service."

This argument is at the core of Google's defense, though it contradicts the FCC's report, which claimed that the engineer leading the project "intended to collect, store and review" the collected data "for possible use in other Google products." This engineer went on to circulate a document among team members, making reference to "the collection of ‘user traffic patterns,’" but Google argues that no one on the team read the document, or understood its full meaning.

Fleischer concluded his letter with a plea for the ICO to reconsider its position, along with documents that certify that its collected payload data was destroyed in 2010.