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ICO re-opens investigation into Google Street View

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has recently announced that it will be opening a new investigation into the activities of internet giant Google. This follows an initial investigation which took place in 2010, which looked into claims that the vehicles Google used to photograph Britain's roads for Google Street View were able to access private wi-fi networks. At the time, the ICO accepted Google's assurances that this data capture was inadvertent, and that the information collected had not been used by Google. However, new evidence has emerged which has thrown Google's claims into doubt.

This new evidence was presented at a hearing in front of the Federal Communications Commission in the USA. At this hearing, Google admitted that the software installed in the Street View cars which was used to capture the data in question was deliberately written by a single Google software engineer in 2006. It also emerged that the type of information collected by Google was more extensive than first thought; this data included IP addresses, full user names, telephone numbers, e-mails, logging in credentials, medical listings and legal infractions.

In response to a letter from the ICO setting out its concerns, Google has maintained that knowledge about the software programme was not widely known within their organisation, and that senior managers at the company were not aware that the data collected by its Street View vehicles contained information of a personal nature until Google was informed of the situation in 2010. Google has indicated that it will continue to make efforts to improve its policies and procedures relating to privacy, and will be updating the ICO shortly with information on progress in this area.

Should the ICO decide that Google has committed a serious breach of the Data Protection Act, it has the power to impose a fine of up to £500,000. While this may not act as a particularly heavy deterrent to a company of Google's size, a ruling of this nature could have a significant detrimental impact on Google's reputation.

This publication is intended for general guidance and represents our understanding of the relevant law and practice as at July 2012. Specific advice should be sought for specific cases; we cannot be held responsible for any action (or decision not to take action) made in reliance upon the content of this publication.

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