Privacy regulator the Information Commissioner’s Office has begun an inquiry into Google after the search engine giant admitted to inadvertently acquiring users’ personal data.
User data including PC passwords and in some cases full emails were collected from unsecured WiFi networks while Google vehicles took photographs for the interactive mapping platform Street View.
The ICO’s probe comes on the back of the search engine’s admission late last week, which followed pressure from a number of national governments. "We will be making enquires to see whether this information relates to the data inadvertently captured in the UK, before deciding on the necessary course of action, including a consideration of the need to use our enforcement powers," said an ICO spokesperson.
Google could face a fine of up to £500,000.
Concerns over the information harvested from wireless networks while creating Street View have existed since May 2010, although at the time Google said that the data collected was "fragmentary".
Since then, law enforcement agencies in several territories including Germany, Italy, Canada and South Korea have investigated the Silicon Valley-based company. An earlier ICO inquiry concluded that Google had collected no meaningful personal details.
“We want to delete this data as soon as possible, and I would like to apologise again for the fact that we collected it in the first place,” commented Alan Eustace, senior vice president for engineering and research at Google, in an official company blog. “We are mortified by what happened, but confident that these changes to our processes and structure will significantly improve our internal privacy and security practices for the benefit of all our users.”
Google has come under scrutiny in 2010 for its approach to privacy. Earlier this year, the company was forced to sack a senior engineer after he accessed users’ personal data, reportedly belonging to minors. After the incident, Google said it would increase the time it spent auditing employees with access to private data.