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Taint of scandal touches Google as ICO reopens Street View investigation

June 13, 2012

I wonder what we should call it? Googlegate? Datagate, perhaps? Google’s inept handling of rogue data captured in the course of its Street View surveys is giving the search giant an unsavoury corporate reputation. It’s hard not to detect parallels here, albeit on a minor scale, with the Murdoch scandal.

And these parallels are? Out-of-control employees apparently breaking the law in pursuit of a private agenda; the abuse of private data; a corporate cover-up involving middle to upper reaches of company management; weak and complaisant regulators who have been forced to reexamine the inadequacy of their earlier rulings.

The UK spotlight has been turned back on Google only because of some disturbing findings uncovered by a Federal Communications Commission inquiry into material gathered by Street View cars – which have specially adapted cameras – in the US. Earlier, the UK regulator – The Information Commissioner’s Office – had dropped a probe into the affair after receiving assurances that Google had collected the data – which includes emails, email headings, visits to pornographic sites and personal medical information – purely by accident.

Not so, it now transpires thanks to the US investigation. A Google software engineer – we’ll call him Engineer Doe, because that’s what the FCC calls him – deliberately built a program capable of capturing all this stuff and then put it into operation between 2008 and 2010. Engineer Doe, it seems, “intended to collect, store and review payload data [as it is known] for possible use in other Google projects.” I wonder what these could have been? iSpy or Gotcha perhaps.

Engineer Doe told two other engineers working on the project what he was up to, one of whom was a senior manager. But the senior echelons at Google deny all complicity.

Having reopened its inquiry, the ICO now wants to know what type of data was captured; when exactly Google managers became aware of the rogue capture; and why Google had previously failed to disclose to the ICO the exact nature of the gathered data.

Extraordinarily, Engineer Doe and his two colleagues still appear to be in the employ of the company. Although, presumably, they are deployed on alternative projects.

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