MPs condemn privacy watchdog over Street View

The UK's leading privacy watchdog came under fire in the House of Commons yesterday as MPs lined up to condemn its lack of action over illegal Wi-fi data collection by Google Street View cars.

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) announced this week that it would be re-opening its probe into Google's wifi data collection, following the admission at the weekend by a senior Google exec that data harvested was much more significant than the company admitted at first.

Writing on the company's official blog, vice-president for engineering and research, Alan Eustace, said that the Street View cars had captured "entire e-mails and URLs... as well as passwords" on a massive scale.

Conservative MP for Harlow, Robert Halfon, slammed the ICO for not taking firmer action over the search giant's alleged privacy abuses. The watchdog has the ability to levy fines of up to £500,000 - but has so far failed to exercise this power.

Halfon recounted to MPs the response he had received from an earlier enquiry to the ICO, which claimed: "The information we saw does not include meaningful personal details that could be linked to an identifiable person... It is unlikely that Google will have captured significant amounts of personal data."

According to the Harlow MP, the ICO had now changed its tune, and blamed the inadequacy of the UK's Data Protection Act 1998 - but had failed, he said, to investigate legal action under other relevant legislation. That job, said Halfon, had been left to private civil liberties groups such as Privacy International:

"Privacy International complained to the Metropolitan police in London, who opened an investigation into Google under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006. Why was that left to private groups and individuals?"

MPs from all parties lined up to express their concerns over the search giant's invasion of privacy, as Halfon questioned Google's defence that the breach had occurred by accident.

"I find it hard to believe that a company with the creative genius and originality of Google could map the personal Wi-fi details, computer passwords and e-mail addresses of millions of people across the world and not know what it was doing."

The coalition government's broadband minister, Ed Vaizey, promised MPs tougher protection of personal privacy when the government publishes its plans to implement a new European e-privacy directive in the spring.

The new laws - which will include tougher sanctions for breaches of privacy, as well as guidelines for the notification of individuals about what data is held on them, and rules over cookies and other information retained by websites - will come into force on 26th May 2011.