The 2010 online privacy investigation into Google’s activities while collecting imaging data for their Street View data was a big deal for the search engine giant. Google were accused of harvesting private data including text messages, e-mails and passwords – whether inadvertantly or deliberately – over unsecured wireless internet connections all over the world, while their Street View image-capturing vehicles were zipping up and down roads all over the globe.
In what was colloquially known as the ‘Wi-Spy’ scandal, an investigation into Google’s activities was initially requested in 2010 by German regulators. After initially claiming that no such private information was being stored by the Street View vehicles, Google were forced by this investigation to admit that the vehicles had been collecting internet users’ private data through unencrypted networks.
The revelation led to umpteen lawsuits lobbied against Google, on grounds of invasion of privacy. Lawyers asserted that the nature of the software committing the violation – which Google vehemently denied all knowledge of – made it apparent that the datamining was carried out deliberately.
An FCC investigation eventually ruled that Google had not violated the laws on wire-tapping. The company were fined $25,000 in May 2012, however, for ‘obstructing’ the investigation. Google were reportedly slow to respond when asked to produce the identities of the engineers responsible for the Street View cars and the rogue software.
Despite initially getting off lightly on these charges of privacy violation, Google’s problems have not ended yet. The UK’s data-protection and privacy watchdog, the Internet Commissioner’s Office (ICO) have decided to re-open the investigations into Google’s ‘accidental’ data theft, which may see the search engine heavyweights come under fire after all.
The prospect of closer investigation may be a dim one for Google – but the investigations are to be hampered by a previous decision by the ICO. Following the close of the initial investigation in 2010, the ICO gave Google the go ahead to delete the raw data that had been mined by the Street View vehicles – an offer that Google were only too happy to take them up on. As part of the conditions of this verdict, Google agreed to put in place staff training measures, designed to teach its workforce the importance of customer privacy and information security, as well as how to handle sensitive customer information.
Now that the collected Wi-Fi data is to be investigated, and is undergoing analysis once more however, the ICO are probably kicking themseles for their lack of foresight. It’s difficult to analyse something that no longer exists, after all.
The ICO is hopeful that, in spite of the erased files, records of any incriminating data will remain. For their part, Google say they will be happy to address the ICO’s concerns – and the company maintains that its project leaders ‘never even looked at’ the (potentially) illegally-obtained data.
The results of the latest investigation have yet to be announced – but times ahead could very well get tougher for Google.