Britain says Google Street View breached law

By Reuters
Posted Nov. 3, 2010 at 12:00 p.m.

Web search giant Google broke UK law by harvesting emails, Internet addresses and passwords while collecting data for its Street View maps service, Britain’s Information Commissioner said on Wednesday.

But the body charged with upholding information rights in the UK said it would not fine Google as long as it complied with an audit of its data-protection practices and undertook to ensure such breaches did not occur again.

Google is also under investigation in Italy, France, Germany, Spain and Canada for collecting inappropriate data with the wi-fi equipped cars it dispatches around the world to collect photographs for Street View.

U.S. federal investigators closed a similar investigation last week, saying the company had taken steps to address privacy concerns it had raised.

In a statement, UK Information Commissioner Christopher Graham said: “There was a significant breach of the Data Protection Act when Google Street View cars collected payload data as part of their wi-fi mapping exercise in the UK.”

“The Commissioner has rejected calls for a monetary penalty to be imposed but is well placed to take further regulatory action if the undertaking is not fully complied with.”

The ICO said it was also requiring Google to delete the data as soon as it was legally cleared to do so. It added that police had indicated they would not pursue their own investigation.

Google’s Global Privacy Counsel Peter Fleischer said in a statement: “”We are profoundly sorry for mistakenly collecting payload data in the UK from unencrypted wireless networks.”

“We did not want this data, have never used any of it in our products or services, and have sought to delete it as quickly as possible,” he added.

Even before the latest revelations, Street View had provoked complaints from people worried about themselves or their homes being captured on camera — which they said violated their privacy and could make them vulnerable to burglary.

For example, one man was shown vomiting in the street and another leaving a sex shop. Google now blurs the faces of people who appear in its images — which give 360-degree views of urban areas, allowing people to orient themselves using mobile phones.

Web companies such as Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo are increasingly collecting information about their users’ online habits, which they can aggregate and use to demonstrate their value to advertisers.

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