UK to reopen probe of Google Street View data collection

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Google is facing renewed privacy scrutiny in Britain, as a U.K. regulator reopens its investigation into how the Web giant’s Street View program gathered personal data.

The U.K. Information Commissioner’s Office announced today that it was motivated to reopen its probe, after information provided in an earlier U.K. investigation appears to have been contradicted by the Federal Communications Commission, which found in April that Google’s data collection had not broken the law.

“During the course of our investigation, we were specifically told by Google that it was a simple mistake, and if the data was collected deliberately, then it is clear that this is a different situation than was reported to us in April 2010,” Steve Eckersley, the ICO’s head of enforcement, said in a letter to the company and distributed to the media. “Given the findings of the FCC, we have reopened our investigation.”

Google said it would cooperate with the new investigation.

“We’re happy to answer the ICO’s questions,” a Google spokesperson told CNET. “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.”

Google’s Street View cars, which were supposed to collect the locations of Wi-Fi access points, also inadvertently collected e-mail and text messages, passwords, Internet usage history, and other data from unsecured wireless networks for two years or so, beginning in 2007. Google said in 2010 that it discovered it had accumulated about 600 gigabytes of data transmitted over public Wi-Fi networks in more than 30 countries but that none of that information appeared in the company’s search engine or other services.

After releasing a heavily redacted copy of its report, the FCC published its full report in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed with the agency. Among the FCC’s findings was that a rogue engineer deliberately wrote code to collect the data and told two colleagues, including a senior manager, about the code. This engineer also distributed to the Street View team a document that said the data collection would take place, the FCC found.

While it found that no laws were broken, the FCC imposed a $25,000 fine on Google, alleging that the Web giant “deliberately impeded and delayed” its probe into the policies governing the mapping service. The Justice Department closed its investigation into Google’s Street View in May 2011, deciding “it would not pursue a case for violation of the Wiretap Act,” according to information Google released in April.

However, since then, two congressmen have asked the Department of Justice to reopen its investigation of Google’s street-mapping service. Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) and John Barrow (D-Ga.) sent a letter last month to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, saying the Web giant’s actions were a “deliberate software design decision.”

Updated at 5:40 p.m. PT with Google statement.

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