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Google denies 'pre-preparing' data in U.K. probe of Street View

Web giant also denied having greater knowledge of payload data inadvertently collected prior to the U.K. investigation in 2010.

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Steven Musil
3 min read
A Google Street View car in action. Jame Martin/CNET

Google denied that Street View data presented to a British regulator was "pre-prepared" and said it was "surprised" that the agency had reopened its investigation into the Web giant's data collection practices.

The denial was in response to an Information Commissioner's Office letter sent last week that included additional questions to its 2010 investigation, saying it was motivated to reopen its probe after information provided in an earlier U.K. investigation appeared to have been contradicted by the Federal Communications Commission.

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.

The ICO decided to reopen its investigation after the FCC published its full report in April. 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.

"Google is surprised that the ICO has decided to re-open its investigation into this matter," Google privacy chief Peter Fleischer wrote in a point-by-point response to the ICO that was printed in full by The Telegraph.

"We note at the outset that your letter of 11 June contains a number of statements and assumptions that incorrectly suggest that the disk made available to the ICO for analysis was 'pre prepared' and not representative of the payload collection, and that Google had greater knowledge about payload collection prior to its May 2010 blogpost than previously had been disclosed, apparently based on the findings of the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC)," Fleischer said.

Fleischer denied there had been "widespread knowledge" about the extent of payload collection.

"The documents we produced to the FCC, the salient portions of which we have provided to you, show that, at most, a few people early in the project could have seen some red flags in a document or an email and inquired further. But that assumes too much. These few individuals are unequivocal that they did not learn about the payload collection until May 2010," Fleischer wrote.

"As Google's submissions to the FCC made clear, the red flags in these handful of documents were missed, as the individuals' sworn declarations confirm, but this is a far cry from suggesting that Google's managers knew about the payload collection," he said.

Google also said it had sought to be transparent on the issue from the beginning, noting that it had been first to report its own transgressions.

"As soon as we realized what had happened, we stopped collecting all Wi-Fi data from our Street View cars and immediately informed the authorities," Fleischer wrote in his letter.

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."