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Google Faces New Street View Probe by U.K. Privacy Regulator

Google Inc. faces a renewed probe from the U.K. privacy regulator over how its Street View service gathered personal data, according to a letter sent by the U.K. Information Commissioner’s Office to the company.

The agency re-opened the investigation after Google’s comments in an earlier U.K. probe may have been contradicted in a report by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission in April, which said the company unlawfully intercepted and stored data through its Street View location service.

“We were specifically told by Google that it was a simple mistake and if the data was collected deliberately then it is clear that this is a different situation than was reported to us in April 2010,” the Wilmslow, England-based regulator said in a letter to the company and distributed to the media. “Given the findings of the FCC we have re-opened our investigation.”

Google was fined $25,000 by the FCC last month for impeding its investigation into improper data gathering. In an agreement ending the U.K. inquiry into Street View in November 2010, Mountain View, California-based Google agreed to further ICO audits of its privacy practices. One was published in August 2011 and will be reviewed this year to ensure ICO recommendations were followed.

“We’re happy to answer the ICO’s questions,” a Google spokesman, who declined to be identified, said in an e-mailed statement. “We have always said that the project leaders did not want and did not use this payload data. Indeed, they never even looked at it.”

Payload Data

For three years starting in May 2007, Google collected content from wireless networks that it didn’t need for its location-based services, according to the FCC. The company gathered so-called payload data, including e-mail and text messages, passwords, Internet-usage history and “other highly sensitive personal information,” the FCC said.

Big Brother Watch, an Oxford, England-based privacy and civil liberties advocacy group, said it supports the ICO’s decision.

“The Information Commissioner’s Office is absolutely right to re-open the investigation and must now take every step to get to the bottom of just how many British people’s privacy was trampled on by Google,” Nick Pickles, a director at Big Brother Watch, said in an e-mailed statement. “It is also essential that Google explain why the explanation it gave in 2010 and the data prepared for the ICO deliberately concealed what had really happened.”

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