Wi-Spying Broke South Korean Law; Multi-state Probe Continues

South Korean police said Thursday that Google broke the country’s privacy laws when its Street View cars gathered personal information from private Wi-Fi networks.  Meanwhile, in the United States, a spokeswoman for Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen told me in a telephone call that the multi-state investigation into Wi-Spy is ongoing.

The states are in negotiations with Google discussing a possible settlement, the spokeswoman said.  She added that the Internet Giant still has refused to turnover material sought by a formal civil investigative demand from the attorney general, which is equivalent to a subpoena.

Google claims that its Wi-Spying collection of emails and other personal information was an accident.  As The Guardian newspaper notes, South Korea is the latest country to determine that Google violated privacy laws.  Others include the UK, Canada, Australia and Spain.

It’s not clear what action South Korea will take next. A police official would only say that the investigation would be concluded by the end of January. The Korean National Police Agency analyzed data on computer hard drives that were seized during a raid on Google’s South Korean headquarters last summer.

Here is what The Korea Times said about the scandal in an editorial, “Google and Privacy”:

“Wrapping up a five-month investigation, the police are considering bringing criminal charges against Google. The firm may face two charges: illegal eavesdropping and a failure to protect personal information. The future legal process will steal the international spotlight as Google grabbed 600 gigabytes of WiFi data from more than 30 countries since 2007.

“Amid a mounting global outcry, Google admitted early last year that it mistakenly collected data sent over unsecured wireless networks using its Street View vehicles to gather images for the map service. However, the company has fallen short of taking a moral or legal responsibility for its mistake. Aside from legal battles, Google should act more responsibly and proactively to prevent a repeat of this and better protect personal data…

“The breach of privacy has already posed a serious threat to the information society in the 21st century. The Google case can be seen only as the tip of the iceberg. There have been numerous cases of privacy violations involving Internet service providers, including portals, websites and other online networks. No one can overemphasize the importance of online privacy and security.


Now it’s time to make all-out efforts to better protect individual privacy and security in cyberspace. Stepped up international cooperation is pivotal to establishing global standards and regulations to make sure that netizens can safely use the Internet without any fears of being spied on. It is a daunting task, but we should not neglect preventing Big Brother from foraying into the Internet, an integral part of our daily lives.

I’m hoping the Koreans prosecute and that Google ends up with more than a slap on the wrist.

In the United States the Federal Trade Commission has closed an investigation after it decided that the Wi-Spying activity did not violate rules that the commission has authority to enforce. After the FTC case was closed, the Federal Communications Commission confirmed that it is investigating the scandal to see if federal wiretap laws were broken.

Consumer Watchdog  asked for the FTC investigation, while our colleagues at the Electronic Privacy Information Center requested the FCC probe. We also asked the states’ attorneys general to investigate and there are now more than 30 state AGs involved.

Former Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal had been spearheading the states’ effort and I was frankly concerned that with his election to the U.S. Senate the investigation might falter.

My conversation with the Jepsen’s spokeswoman reassured me that is not the case.  However, even as the states’ effort continues, there is another forum that would ensure we get to the bottom of the largest invasion of privacy in history: Google CEO Eric Schmidt needs to testify before Congress under oath.

Published by John M. Simpson

John M. Simpson is a leading voice on technological privacy and stem cell research issues. His investigations this year of Google’s online privacy practices and book publishing agreements triggered intense media scrutiny and federal interest in the online giant’s business practices. His critique of patents on human embryonic stem cells has been key to expanding the ability of American scientists to conduct stem cell research. He has ensured that California’s taxpayer-funded stem cell research will lead to broadly accessible and affordable medicine and not just government-subsidized profiteering. Prior to joining Consumer Watchdog in 2005, he was executive editor of Tribune Media Services International, a syndication company. Before that, he was deputy editor of USA Today and editor of its international edition. Simpson taught journalism a Dublin City University in Ireland, and consulted for The Irish Times and The Gleaner in Jamaica. He served as president of the World Editors Forum. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Harpur College of SUNY Binghamton and was a Gannett Fellow at the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii. He has an M.A. in Communication Management from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

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