Google Street View: more privacy, more problems

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Europeans and Canadians are unhappy with Google over its Street View service, an extension of Google Maps that lets users see a 360 degree view of what a location looks like from the ground. To counter the negative build-up, Google appointed a new manager of privacy last week and outlined several new privacy policies on its blog. The appointment couldn’t come soon enough. On Sunday, the UK privacy watchdog group launched an investigation into Google, and yesterday Italy’s privacy regulator demanded that Google more clearly mark its Street View vehicles.

Google’s new director of privacy

Alma Whitten is now in charge of all things privacy at Google. She is tasked with building privacy controls into all of the company’s products and internal practices. For the last two years, Whitten has served as Google’s engineering lead for privacy and security. She will have a significantly larger team to manage this expansive task.

Google’s new policies

In a blog post, Alan Eustace, senior vice president of Engineering and Research at Google, announced that the search company will be enhancing its internal training where it relates to privacy and security. All Google employees already receive orientation on privacy and protection of user data, but engineers, managers, and other important groups of employees will undergo a more expansive training program with a “particular focus on the responsible collection, use, and handling of data.”

In addition, Google will add a new process to its internal review system requiring project leaders to maintain a privacy design document for “each initiative” that they’re working on. The document will be reviewed regularly by managers and an independent internal audit team.

Mark your cars, says Italy

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New policies or not, Italy still isn’t happy. Though Google’s Street View cars already come with a giant camera on a pole, Reuters reported that Italy’s privacy regulator has told Google to more clearly mark its vehicles and publicize their itinerary. Wherever it plans to take its cars, the search giant must now publish three days in advance on its website, in local newspapers, and on the radio notifying residents of where the cars will be taking pictures.

“There has been strong alarm and also hostility in a lot of European countries against Google taking photos. We have received protests even from local administrations,” Privacy Authority President Francesco Pizzetti was quoted as saying.

The UK investigates Google

Finally, the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has launched an investigation into Google and how it accidentally collected user Wi-Fi data from its Street View cars. The investigation is a reaction to Canada’s problems with Street View, which stem back to the service’s launch in 2007.

“Earlier this year,” said an ICO spokeperson, “the ICO visited Google’s premises to make a preliminary assessment of the payload data it inadvertently collected while developing Google Street View. While the information we saw at the time did not include meaningful personal details that could be linked to an identifiable person, we have continued to liaise with, and await the findings of, the investigations carried out by our international counterparts. Now that these findings are starting to emerge, we understand that Google has accepted that in some instances entire URLs and emails have been captured. We will be making enquires to see whether this information relates to the data inadvertently captured in the UK, before deciding on the necessary course of action, including a consideration of the need to use our enforcement powers.”‬

Just last week, Google announced that it would be removing 244,000 German households from its Street View service, by request. PC World says the big lesson here is on consumers to tighten their Wi-Fi security. Are you concerned about Street View? Is this outrage warranted?

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