The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has said that it will ‘not be panicked into a knee jerk response to an alarmist agenda' over Google Street View.
Following a House of Commons debate, where MPs accused Google of deliberately collecting personal data over unsecured WiFi connections for commercial gain, the ICO has said that it needs to assess cases slowly and carefully.
A spokesperson said: “As a regulator, the ICO must take a calm and measured approach to the issue of data privacy and ensure that we do not get caught up in the emotive arguments which will only naturally take place around sensitive issues such as the inadvertent collection of data by Google Street View.”
It admitted that its enquiries are taking ‘longer than many people might like', and said that it is of paramount importance that it gets its decision right in order to ensure the public can be confident that their long term privacy interests are being maintained.
Robert Halfon, Conservative MP for Harlow, said in the Commons yesterday that he had been confused by conflicting statements about what was collected and said that the collection of millions of emails, passwords and the addresses of websites visited by private households was ‘unacceptable'.
He said: “The issue is simple: either meaningful personal data were collected in significant amounts, or they were not. In July 2010, we were told that they were not; in October 2010, we were told that they were. I sincerely hope that this House, the Government and the British public, have not been deliberately misled.
“I also hope that Google's U-turn is voluntary, rather than a scenario in which it admitted the truth only because investigations by other governments gave it no alternative.”
He went on to say that he found it hard to believe that a company with the creative genius and originality of Google could map the personal WiFi details, computer passwords and email addresses of millions of people across the world and not know what it was doing.
He said: “My feeling is that the data were of use to Google for commercial purposes and that that is why it was done. Of course Google denies that, but for me the question is whether the company underestimated the reaction of the public and many governments across the world once it was revealed what Google had done.
“Even if Google had not harvested oceans of data without anyone's consent, and even if the ICO had not been so lamentable in its response, I would still have concerns about Street View. In many ways, Street View is a brilliant innovation. I am sure that many of us in this Chamber have used it from time to time as a three-dimensional ‘A to Z', but street-mapping has been done without anyone's explicit permission.
“Millions of houses and gardens are photographed in micro-detail and put on the web. As I mentioned, there were episodes in which Google photographed naked children and uploaded the pictures to the web. Although the pictures were subsequently removed, they should not have been there in the first place. I am sure that honourable members will have tales to tell of emails sent by constituents about similar situations.”
The ICO statement said that it followed yesterday's debate and from this it became apparent that a great deal of misunderstanding exists about what actions it has already taken and what it is doing in relation to Google Street View. The ICO is keen to discuss with MPs and ministers how it can further defend privacy on the internet as technologies and applications develop.
The statement said: “The situation as it stands is this. Earlier this year the ICO visited Google's premises to make a preliminary assessment of the ‘pay-load' data it inadvertently collected whilst developing Google Street View. Whilst the information we saw at the time did not include meaningful personal details that could be linked to an identifiable person, we have continued to liaise with, and await the findings of, the investigations carried out by our international counterparts.
“Now that these findings are starting to emerge, we understand that Google has accepted that in some instances entire URLs and emails and passwords have been captured. We have already made enquires to see whether this admission relates to the data inadvertently captured in the UK, and we are now deciding on the necessary course of action, including a consideration of the need to use our enforcement powers.
“It is also important to note that none of the regulators currently investigating Google Street View have taken direct enforcement action at this stage, with the US investigation led by the US Federal Trade Commission for example, ruling out direct action, although mirroring our own concern that this data was allowed to be collected by an organisation who showed such disregard for international data protection legislation.
“This week the Metropolitan Police have also closed their case believing it would not be appropriate to pursue a criminal case against Google under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). Whilst we continue to work with our other international counterparts on this issue we will not be panicked into a knee jerk response to an alarmist agenda.”