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.
Google to resume Street View photography
Google’s Street View cars will hit the road again next week for the first time since it caused outcry with revelations it had been collecting data from unsecured wireless networks.
The search company is still under investigation in several countries, but it says independent security experts have confirmed that it has removed from its vehicles the equipment that intercepted snippets of e-mails and web-browsing information from unsecured WiFi hotspots.
n a blog post, Brian McClendon, vice-president of engineering at Google Geo, said its cars would resume photographing streets and gathering other information for Street View in Ireland, Norway, South Africa and Sweden.
The list does not yet include Germany, the US and UK, where legal investigations are still ongoing into what Google says was a mistake.
“We expect to add more countries in time,” Mr McClendon said. “Our cars will no longer collect any WiFi information at all, but will continue to collect photos and 3D imagery as they did before.”
Google grounded its fleet of Street View cars in May when it discovered that its system for identifying the location of WiFi networks had for three years been intercepting the data travelling over them.
Although Google no longer collects the names of hotspots and other information about wireless networks, other companies are still gathering and selling such information.
Street View cars will still take photos for its maps, which provide 360º imagery of locations and are mined for names of streets and shops to improve Google’s local business listings.
It also uses “low power lasers” to collect “geometry data”, allowing Google Maps to render buildings in 3D. Google says rivals such as Microsoft’s Bing, which incorporates data from Nokia’s NavTeq, and TeleAtlas, owned by TomTom, collect data in much the same way.
Even before its WiFi-related error came to light, Google’s information gathering through Street View was causing it legal problems in some countries. Last November, Swiss data protection officials took Google to court, because they felt the company had not done enough to make people’s faces and car number plates unrecognisable.
Google was forced to issue a further apology in Australia yesterday after the Australian privacy commisioner said that its data collection broke the law.
“Collecting personal information in these circumstances is a very serious matter. Australians should reasonably expect that private communications remain private,” said Karen Curtis, the commisioner.
Google said it was “sincerely sorry” and pledged to consult with the Australian authorities over new product launches. “We are acutely aware that we failed badly here,” Google said in a blog post.
Conducting its own tests in the US, Consumer Watchdog, a campaign group, found that several members of Congress, including some with responsibility for security, could have had data from unsecured wireless networks intercepted by Google.
Critics call for Congressional hearings on Google's Wi-Fi data harvesting
Critics are calling for congressional hearings into why the Federal Trade Commission yesterday dropped its inquiry into the search giant's global Wi-Fi eavesdropping campaign, even as lawsuits and government probes pick up steam in the U.S. and abroad.
Leading the call for Congressional oversight is John M. Simpson, managing director of the non-profit advocacy group Consumer Watchdog. Simpson calls this two-page letter the FTC sent to Google on Wednesday "premature and wrong. "
"Once again, Google, with its myriad of government connections, gets a free pass," says Simpson. "At a minimum the public deserved a full report about Google's abuses from the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. Instead, the company announced a few steps that are little more than window dressing and the FTC caves in with a woefully inadequate two-page letter."