The controversy over Google Street View has come back to plague the company with the news that the UK Information Commissioner is studying a report by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) suggesting the company knew all along that the system was gathering personal data from Wi-Fi networks.
Published last month, the FFC analysis makes difficult reading for Google on a number of levels, starting with a series of revelations about the personal data collected as part of the Street View project, and what managers knew about it.
According to the FFC report, Google recently admitted for the first time that a single US-based British employee named “Engineer Doe” designed the Street View software from day one to ‘wardrive’ access point data such as SSIDs and MAC addresses but also harvest personal emails and user passwords from Wi-Fi access points not using encryption.
Why the engineer did this is still not clear but the FCC concluded that Google must have collected significant amounts of personal data in many countries despite its managers later describing the data collection as “accidental.”
The engineer – who refused to co-operate with the investigation – apparently passed on details of the software’s design to Google managers during development, contradicting the company’s claims that it was not aware of the data-harvesting capabilities until later on.
When trying to untangle events, the FCC report said that Google had “deliberately impeded and delayed the Bureau’s investigation by failing to respond to requests for material information.”
In the UK, the ICO announced in July 2010 that it did not believe that Street View collected personal data that could be linked to an individual based on the samples it was given access to by Google.
In the light of the FCC report, the organisation has said it will now revisit this investigation.
“We are currently studying the FCC report to consider what further action, if any, needs to be taken,” the ICO said. “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.”
Google has also faced calls in the UD for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to re-open its own investigation into the affair at a time it Street View remains under investigation in several other countries.
"We have always been clear that the leaders of this project did not want or intend to use this payload data," a Google spokesperson was quoted as saying in response. "Indeed, Google never used it in any of our products or services."
“If people don’t understand what is happening to their personal information, how can they make an informed choice about using a service? Google is putting advertiser’s interests before user privacy and should not be rushing ahead before the public understand what the changes will mean,” the organisation said.
Street View remains one of the most contentious projects Google has ever undertaken, hugely popular with users but also hugely resented by privacy campaigners the world over. At times, the system has courted abusurdity even in its basic function, inadvertently photographing ordinary people in embarrassing street situations.