Software

Street View data Google promised to delete is still around

Yeah, so, er, you know that data Google collected 'by accident' that it said it had deleted? Funny story.

Yeah, so, um, you know that data Google collected 'by accident' that it said it hadn't collected, but it had, and said it had deleted? Funny story. Ha ha. You see, the thing is, er, it didn't delete all of it. Not quite. Oops!

In a major privacy clanger, Google admitted 'human error' prevented it from getting rid of all the data it inadvertently collected from Wi-Fi hotspots via its Street View cars back in 2010. And it could be in some trouble with the UK's Information Commissioner's Office.

"Google has recently confirmed that it still has in its possession a small portion of payload data collected by our Street View vehicles in the UK," Google's global privacy counsel Peter Fleisher wrote to the ICO today. "Google apologises for this error."

"The ICO has always been clear that this should never have happened in the first place and the company's failure to secure its deletion as promised is cause for concern," a spokesman said in a statement. The data could contain emails, passwords, URLs and other sensitive information.

The funny-looking cars travel around the country photographing every road, so you can better see what's at a particular address. It also helps Google's local search. But another function of the cars is to record the names and locations of Wi-Fi hotspots, so if you're nearby and have no phone signal, your Maps app can still pinpoint your location by triangulating Wi-Fi signals.

While Google claimed it wasn't downloading anything from any Wi-Fi hotspot, it later transpired that some code written by a junior programmer, and permitted by managers, did just that. The data was never used for any commercial purpose, Google swears. It's now conducting a review of its Street View data, which "involves the physical inspection and re-scanning of thousands of disks", according to Fleischer.

The original ICO investigation gave Google a slap on the wrist, but when more information became apparent after a more thorough investigation in Germany, the watchdog reopened the case.

The ICO has asked to see the remaining data, so it's possible more problems for Google could wriggle out of this tin of worms. It's already received a record fine from the French authorities over this omnishambles, and faces similar dressings down from watchdogs in (deep breath) Australia, Austria, Belgium, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. Phew.

What do you think the Big G should do to apologise? Buy us all new routers? Give every building it's photographed a lick of paint? Put a dunce's hat on its logo for a year? Detail your elaborate and painful punishments in the comments below, or over on our squeaky clean Facebook page.