ICO colluded with Google on Wi-Fi sniffing

Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act suggest that the Information Commissioner's Office and Google colluded to minimise the embarrassment suffered by the advertising giant over the Wi-Fi snooping scandal.

That's the story told by PC Pro, which obtained partially redacted documents from ICO under the Freedom of Information Act, including an e-mail from Dave Evans, ICO's group manager for business and industry, to Google asking for a "quick chat about the Wi-Fi business."

The e-mail - which dates from after ICO came under fire from Tory MP Robert Halfon for what he saw as a botched excuse of an investigation that found Google had done no wrong in surreptitiously recording usernames, passwords, and URLs of passing Wi-Fi traffic via its Street View cars - explains that the ICO planned "an internal meeting next week about our next steps and obviously in light of Rob Halfon MP's continued misrepresentation of the issue, the quicker we get something done the better."

While the e-mail shows a surprising leniency towards Google from the office charged with protecting the public's right to privacy, further documents paint the ICO in an increasingly bad light. Following the decision that Google would not be fined for its actions, the Information Commissioner asked the advertising giant to agree to an 'undertaking notice' which would require it to delete the gathered data, agree to an audit to ensure the data was deleted, and to overhaul its privacy practices.

Sadly, it turns out that the 'punishment' - which many at the time saw as far too lenient - was nothing of the sort, with Google itself able to suggest changes to the planned audit which it described as "extremely wide and [something] Google would definitely not be comfortable with without considerable refinement and discussion."

As well as allowing Google to shrink the scope of its own punishment, and extend the deadline by an additional three months over the original ICO guidelines, the documents reveal a shockingly lax attitude towards the matter from those at the top.

In another e-mail to Google, Evans apologised for a break in communications, explaining that he had "other (actual) work" that he considered more pressing at the time - before taking a further two months to review the sample of collected data provided at his request by Google.

So far, there has been no comment from the Information Commissioner's office nor Google as to the material unearthed by the magazine, but it looks certain to undo any faith the public had in the fairness of the process.

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