Google's still holding on to Streetview data

The company narrowly escaped a fine over the personal data it harvested while it was making Streetview. But it still hasn't destroyed it.

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 01 Oct 2013

It’s been protested against, threatened and fined – but Google is still holding on to personal data it ‘mistakenly’ harvested using cameras on its Street View cars. Now it’s been hauled in front of the Information Commissioner, rapped across the knees and told it’s got 35 days to delete the data – or face contempt of court charges.

The news came as the Information Commissioner’s Office announced it isn’t planning to fine Google over the data – including people’s wi-fi passwords – which the company claims it didn’t realise was being harvested.

Google reckons a ‘low-level engineer’ wrote the code which absorbed thousands of people’s personal details – but that no one else realised (although it’s emerged that at least one senior manager did know about it).

The ICO agrees with Google that it ‘mistakenly’ gathered the data, but the company hasn’t been so lucky in other countries: in both Germany and the US it has been handed a fine for the security breach. Although the fines weren’t exactly crippling: in Germany, it was $189,000 (£122,000), and $25,000 in the US.

Still, you’d have thought Google had learned its lesson and got rid of all the data by now, but apparently not: the ICO has found ‘additional discs’ lying around its office which contain data gathered during the StreetView project. D’oh.

Google might be relieved at avoiding the fine – but others are decidedly unimpressed with the ICO’s decision. Nick Pickles, director of privacy campaign Big Brother Watch, says it’s ‘worryingly close to… setting a precedent that companies can collect data illegally and not face any action if they promise to delete it later on’.

Well, Nick: you know what Big Brother says. He who controls the past controls the future…

--- UPDATE 5.10pm

Google's been in touch. It wanted us to add this:

'We work hard to get privacy right at Google. But in this case we didn't, which is why we quickly tightened up our systems to address the issue. The project leaders never wanted this data, and didn't use it or even look at it.'

'We cooperated fully with the ICO throughout its investigation, and having received its order this morning we are proceeding with our plan to delete the data.

- Image: Flickr/JeffaCubed

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