Google's harvesting of personal information neither a mistake nor the work of a rogue engineer: Report

SAN FRANCISCO: Google's harvesting of emails, passwords and other sensitive personal information from unsuspecting households in the United States and around the world was neither a mistake nor the work of a rogue engineer, as the company long maintained, but a program that supervisors knew about, according to new details from the full text of a regulatory report.

The report, prepared by the Federal Communications Commission after a 17-month investigation of Google's Street View project, was released, heavily redacted, two weeks ago. Although it found that Google had not violated any laws, the agency said Google had obstructed the inquiry and fined the company $25,000. 





On Saturday, Google released a version of the report with only employees' names redacted.

The full version draws a portrait of a company where an engineer can easily embark on a project to gather personal emails and Web searches of potentially hundreds of millions of people as part of his or her unscheduled work time, and where privacy concerns are shrugged off.

The payload data was secretly collected between 2007 and 2010 as part of Street View, a project to photograph streetscapes over much of the civilized world. When the program was being designed, the report says, it included the following "to do" item: "Discuss privacy considerations with Product Counsel."

"That never occurred," the report says.

Google says the data collection was legal. But when regulators asked to see what had been collected, Google refused, the report says, saying it might break privacy and wiretapping laws if it shared the material.

A Google spokeswoman said Saturday that the company had much stricter privacy controls than it used to, in part because of the Street View controversy. She expressed the hope that with the release of the full report, "we can now put this matter behind us."

Ever since information about the secret data collection first began to emerge two years ago, Google has portrayed it as the mistakes of an unauthorized engineer operating on his own and stressed that the data was never used in any Google product.

The report, quoting the engineer's original proposal, gives a somewhat different impression. The data, the engineer wrote, would "be analyzed offline for use in other initiatives." Google says this was never done.

The report, which was first published in its unredacted form by The Los Angeles Times, also states that the engineer, who began the project as part of his "20 per cent" time that Google gives employees to do work on their own initiative, specifically told two engineers working on the project, including a senior manager, about collecting payload data."

As early as 2007, the report says, Street View engineers had "wide access" to the plan to collect payload data. Five engineers tested the Street View code, a sixth reviewed it line by line, and a seventh also worked on it, the report says.

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