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Britain reopens investigation into Google Street View service

A British agency, in a letter to Google, says it now considers it likely that private data including user names and emails had been 'deliberately captured' by Google's Street View teams.

June 13, 2012|By William D'Urso, Los Angeles Times
  • A Google Maps bike with a 360-degree camera is set to offer views inside Wembley Stadium in London.
A Google Maps bike with a 360-degree camera is set to offer views inside Wembley… (Ian Walton, Getty Images )

An investigation into Google Inc.'s controversial Street View service, which shows photos of residences and other buildings as part of the online company's mapping feature, is being reopened by a British government agency looking into privacy lapses.

In a letter to the giant tech company, Britain's Information Commissioner's Office said the agency now considers it likely that private data — including user names, telephone numbers, emails and even online dating information — had been "deliberately captured" by Google's Street View teams.

The agency's head of enforcement, Steve Eckersley, asked the company to promptly answer several questions about the data, including what was gathered, when Google managers knew about the information and why the agency was not made aware of it in earlier inquiries.

The agency also asked for the "certificate of destruction" showing that the data had been destroyed.

In a statement, Google said it would cooperate with the investigation.

"We have always said that the project leaders did not want and did not use this payload data," the statement said. "Indeed, they never even looked at it."

There has been an ongoing debate over the private data collected by the Street View crews — which roamed the streets of the U.S., Britain and other countries in specially equipped photo vehicles — and whether it was intentional. The fervor was especially acute in Europe, where privacy laws are more stringent.

The Information Commissioner's Office had investigated allegations concerning Street View in 2010 and 2011 but concluded that the gathering of the information had been unintentional and that the company had taken steps to make sure it would not occur again.

But last month a U.S. Federal Communications Commission report on Street View revealed that the data collection was not, as Google previously said, known to just one engineer. The report said knowledge of the data collection was more widespread in the company.

Scott Kessler, an S&P Capital IQ analyst who follows Google, said Tuesday that the renewed investigation probably would not seriously harm the company.

"Best I can tell, these types of actions typically have not had deleterious effects on Google or many other companies in comparable situations," Kessler said.

Kessler said the main danger for Google is that the revelations could result in increased government oversight of the company in some countries. He said that could "hamper the company's ability to act quickly."

Britain might not be the only country to reopen investigations based on the FCC report. France's regulator said last month that it would also review the report and consider its options.

william.durso@latimes.com

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