The Information Commissioner has issued a press release announcing the result of the recent Intellectual Property Office ("IPO") investigation into alleged privacy breaches by Google UK.
The investigation followed the admission by Google that its Street View vehicles had inadvertently collected personal information from private internet connections.
Google's Street View facility provides 360-degree photographs of nearly all public locations across the globe. In addition to taking these photographs, in many countries - including the UK - Google's hi-tech Street View vehicles were also mapping public wi-fi connections as they drove. While this could be considered a perfectly commendable exercise, the Street View vehicles' antennae were also connecting with unencrypted private routers. Furthermore, during the time that the vehicles were connected with these private routers, the data in transit from these connections was also collected.
While this transit data was largely fragmentary, investigations conducted by the Canadian data protection authority nonetheless discovered that complete e-mails, URLs and passwords could still be identified.
While the UK Information Commissioner has concluded that this practice amounted to a "significant" breach of the Data Protection Act 1998, no monetary penalty has been imposed. The Commissioner has instead insisted that Google UK sign an undertaking, requiring the company to improve their data compliance and submit to a compliance audit by the IPO.
The IPO decision not to issue a monetary penalty has attracted criticism, with MP Robert Halfon describing the move as "lamentable and lily-livered".
This controversial decision comes in the same week as Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey, met with the Information Commissioner’s Office to discuss a revised code for privacy online. The proposed code would require online businesses who sign up to discuss opportunities for redress for those aggrieved by a breach of privacy. Vaizey envisages a mediation service similar to the Press Complaints Commission, which works to resolve complaints about information published in newspapers.
The Minister further believes that the code should be mandatory in certain cases, as well-known sites such as Google and Facebook could bolster the profile of the code and provide it with vital momentum.