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Google gets UK OK on privacy in slurping probe

'Not a rubber stamp' insists kid-glove-clad regulator

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Google's privacy policy has been gently applauded by Information Commissioner Christopher Graham, who came under sharp criticism for his initial "lily-livered" handling of the company's Street View Wi-Fi data-slurping operation.

An audit by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) took place last month at Google's London office.

The watchdog carried out the probe, after it reversed its decision about Google's Street View technology in November 2010 when it concluded that Mountain View had breached the Data Protection Act.

The ICO said at the time it would require Google to sign a piece of paper promising not to break the law again. It also confirmed at that point that an audit of Google's privacy practices would take place.

"I'm satisfied that Google has made good progress in improving its privacy procedures following the undertaking they signed with me last year," said Graham today.

"All of the commitments they gave us have been progressed and the company have also accepted the findings of our audit report where we've asked them to go even further."

But, despite its U-turn last November, the ICO declined to slap a monetary penalty on Google, instead threatening "further regulatory action" if the ad broker failed to fully comply with the agreement.

"The ICO's Google audit is not a rubber stamp for the company's data protection policies. The company needs to ensure its work in this area continues to evolve alongside new products and technologies. Google will not be filed and forgotten by the ICO," said Graham this morning.

There has been much tougher action against Google's fleet of Street View vehicles elsewhere in Europe, after the company admitted that its mass Wi-Fi snoop from the cars had slurped up passwords and entire emails and URLs. The company insisted the data had been collected accidentally.

But that didn't stop Germany, for example, ordering Google to altogether withdraw its Street View fleet from the country.

The ICO listed areas where it reckoned Google had improved its privacy policy including a "Privacy Design Document" that involves each new project undergoing "in-depth assessment to ensure that privacy is built in from the start".

Google has also subjected its engineers to "advance data protection training".

The ICO said Google must still do better with how it handles data, before recommending what, in effect, were simple enhancements to action already undertaken by the firm:

  • All existing products to have a Privacy Story – an explanation of how data will be managed in a new product. This should be used to provide users proactively with information about the privacy features of products.
  • Google should ensure that all projects have a Privacy Design Document, and that processes to check them for accuracy and completeness continue to be enhanced.
  • The core training for engineers should be developed to include specific engineering disciplines, taking account of the outcomes of the Privacy Design Document.

Separately, the ICO has been looking at whether Google's Profile product needs to comply with Regulation 18 of the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations to establish whether it constitutes a directory of subscribers.

The watchdog has been poking a cotton-wool wrapped stick at Google Profiles after The Register asked it to consider what rights an individual might have if it can be proved that the service constitutes such a directory.

At the end of July, the company killed all privately stored profiles created via its Gmail product as part of a drive to link real names with users' Google accounts and its new social network effort Google+. ®

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