Google privacy has improved since Street View gaffe, says ICO

Search giant has implemented the privacy process changes recommended by the ICO last year

Google has made "significant progress" over the past year in its handing of personal data, and has put in place new measures to enhance privacy following the Street View gaffe of 2010, according to an audit by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO).

The ICO carried out an initial audit of Google in July 2011, after it emerged that the company's Street View cars had inadvertently collected more than 600GB of payload data - including full URLs, emails and passwords - from unsecured Wi-Fi networks around the world.

The initial audit recognised that Google had made improvements to its internal privacy structure, privacy training and awareness and privacy reviews, but also identified several areas of improvement.

The ICO suggested that all projects should have a Privacy Design Document (PDD), and that 'privacy stories' should accompany all Google services to inform consumers about specific privacy issues. Training should also be better focused and delivered to all engineers, it said.

The ICO has now conducted a follow-up audit, to see the progress that Google has made in implementing the recommendations it made last year.

"Based on the implementation of the agreed recommendations made in the original audit report, the arrangements continue to provide a reasonable assurance that that Google have implemented the privacy process changes outlined in the Undertaking," the report states.

In particular, it notes that tracking tools are being developed to ensure that all user-facing products have a PDD and to ensure that all projects follow the privacy review process as developed by Google. Automated reminders have been used to ensure PDDs are kept up to date.

"There are still a number of historical projects without a PDD and Google should look to ensure this is dealt with as quickly as possible," the report states.

"It is recognised, however, that significant progress has been made in the coverage of the PDD programme since last year and that a risk based approach has been currently adopted to roll out of PDDs."

The 'privacy stories' processes have not yet been implemented, but reviews have been conducted to ensure the efficiency and effectiveness of the initiative. The ICO recommends that this be embedded into the product development process, and made mandatory for all user-facing products.

Meanwhile, advanced training is now underway to promote awareness of privacy in Google, and privacy has been identified as a key theme for internal audit reviews. Procedures have been put in place to ensure privacy risk is actively considered in the scoping of audits.

Some still believe Google got off lightly in its dealings with the ICO. Earlier this year, Google was slapped with a $25,000 (£16,000) fine by the US Federal Communications Commission for repeatedly failing to respond to requests for information, thereby impeding the agency's investigation.

Other European countries such as Spain and France have also fined Google for Street View privacy violations.

In July it emerged that Google's UK privacy head Stephen McCartney had been responsible for 'data protection promotion' at the ICO at the time that Google was cleared of wrongdoing over the Street View incident. However, the ICO denied a conflict of interest, claiming that McCartney was not involved in the investigation.

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