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ICO defends soft Street View probe

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The Information Commissioner's Office has defended its handling of the controversy surrounding Google's Wi-Fi data harvesting operation, following questions about its soft-touch investigation.

In what a spokesman described as an "update" late yesterday, it protested that it had no powers to investigate Google for alleged illegal interception, which is controlled by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).

"Unlike some privacy commissioners abroad the Information Commissioner has no responsibility for enforcing the law on interception of communications," the ICO said in a statement.

Other European data protection regulators, such as those in Germany, France and Spain, have taken an aggressive approach since it was revealed in June that Google's Street View fleet intercepted and stored payload data from unencrypted Wi-Fi networks.

The practice has prompted worldwide action, including a police raid this week on Google's South Korean offices.

The ICO has meanwhile said it is satisfied no personally identifiable information was harvested, based on a sample of the database shown to officials at Google's London HQ. At the end of July regulators said the operation was "wrong" but appeared to clear the firm of offences under the Data Protection Act and the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations. Yesterday it insisted it has not abandoned the case, however.

"We remain vigilant and will be reviewing our own findings together with relevant findings and evidence from our international counterparts' investigations. In the light of this we will decide what, if any further action to take," the ICO said.

"The case has not been closed."

RIPA is the "main" law Google is accused of having broken, the ICO said. This week the Metropolitan Police's computer crime unit, PCeU, told The Register it is still considering a formal investigation over a complaint of illegal interception made by Privacy International in June.

Despite filing patents on the relevant technology, Google says it collected the payload data by accident and has blamed a rogue software engineer.

Although police may still investigate, the ICO's defensive statement over RIPA again highlights a gap in the current enforcement regime for privacy law that was first exposed by BT and Phorm's secret trials of behavioural advertising technology.

The European Commission is threatening to sue the UK government if it does not appoint an authority to regulate interception of communications by private companies.®

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