Google set for probes on data harvesting
By Joseph Menn in San Francisco, Daniel Schäfer in Frankfurt and Tim Bradshaw in London
Authorities on both sides of the Atlantic on Monday moved towards investigating Google following the internet group’s disclosure that it had recorded communications sent over unsecured wireless networks in people’s homes.
Peter Schaar, the German commissioner for data protection, called for a “detailed probe” by independent authorities into the practice by Google.
He said the group’s explanation of the collection of data as an accident was “highly unusual”.
“One of the largest companies in the world, the market leader on the internet, simply disobeyed normal rules in the development and usage of software,” he said.
In the US, the Federal Trade Commission was expected to launch an inquiry as well, according to people who spoke to agency officials.
Privacy advocates said an inquiry could look at whether the collection of data breached rules on unauthorised access to computers and private communications.
“This may be one of the most massive surveillance incidents by a private corporation that has ever occurred”, said Marc Rotenberg, leader of the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Centre in Washington.
“It is unprecedented vacuuming of WiFi data by a private company. Can you imagine what would happen if a German corporation was sending cars through Washington sucking up all this information?”
Google reiterated its statements from late Friday in Europe, when it reversed earlier denials that it had collected personal activity.
It said it had been using a fleet of camera-equipped Street View vehicles, which take pictures for the group’s imaging services, and had been at the same time using the cars to assemble a database of electronic WiFi addresses intended to improve the functioning of its maps and other location services.
Google said the project leaders ignored that the vehicles were also taking in snippets of activity on the WiFi networks.
“We didn’t want to collect this data in the first place and we would like to destroy it as soon as possible,” said Google’s spokesman Peter Barron.
The data in question had never been available to outsiders, the company said.
However, Google’s credibility has taken a hit, especially since it only recently disclosed that the cars, in circulation for years, had wireless capability.
The matter came to light during a separate tussle over the images on Street View, which supplements Google’s maps and satellite-view offerings.
Ilse Aigner, the German minister for consumer protection, said the new revelation “is alarming and yet another proof that privacy protection is still alien to Google”.
In the UK, the Information Commissioner’s Office said that Google appeared to have breached the data protection act.
But the ICO added that after receiving assurances from Google that it would delete the data “as soon as reasonably possible”, the commissioner would not be taking further action against the company.
The dustup may fuel the development of privacy laws in the US, which has few of the rules common to Europe. One bill on broader regulation was introduced in recent weeks.
The Google controversy follows a recent uproar over Facebook’s erosion of privacy settings,
“Both Google and Facebook have given the privacy groups an unsolicited contribution,” said Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy.
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