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Information Commissioner gives Google all-clear on accidental Wi-Fi data collection

Google was wrong to gather data about and from wireless networks when its cars documented the UK's streets for its Street View service but it is "unlikely" that the company gathered much personal data, the UK privacy watchdog has said.30 Jul 2010

Google's cars drove the streets of the UK's biggest cities taking panoramic pictures to build up a virtual streetscape in its popular Street View service, which launched last spring.

It emerged this year, though, that the cars had gathered information on Wi-Fi networks so that they could also be mapped, and that this process had involved the gathering of some of the communications over the networks.

The Information Commissioner's Office, which is responsible for enforcing the Data Protection Act, has now said that it has investigated the incident and believes there is no basis for further action.

"The ICO has visited Google’s premises to assess samples of the ‘pay-load’ data it inadvertently collected," said an ICO statement. "Whilst Google considered it unlikely that it had collected anything other than fragments of content, we wanted to make our own judgement as to the likelihood that significant personal data had been retained and, if so, the extent of any intrusion."

The ICO said that "it was wrong" for Google to collect the data, but that the practice does not seem to have caused harm to individuals. "The information we saw does not include meaningful personal details that could be linked to an identifiable person," it said.

Google faces investigations in Germany and France over the collection of information and a class action law suit in the US, as well as investigations by states. The French data protection authority said last month that passwords were among the data gathered by Google in France.

"As we have only seen samples of the records collected in the UK we recognise that other data protection authorities conducting a detailed analysis of all the payload data collected in their jurisdictions may nevertheless find samples of information which can be linked to identifiable individuals," said the ICO. "However, on the basis of the samples we saw we are satisfied so far that it is unlikely that Google will have captured significant amounts of personal data."

"On the basis of the samples we saw we are satisfied so far that it is unlikely that Google will have captured significant amounts of personal data. There is also no evidence as yet that the data captured by Google has caused or could cause any individual detriment," it said.