Google Faces Criminal Probe in Hamburg on Wi-Fi Data

Wed, May 19, 2010 at 1:59 pm

    May 19 (Bloomberg) — Google Inc., the owner of the world’s largest search engine, is facing a criminal probe by Hamburg prosecutors over data it said was erroneously gathered for its Street View mapping service.

    The Hamburg Prosecutors’ Office is investigating people at the company on suspicion of criminal data capture, prosecutor spokesman Wilhelm Moellers said in an interview today. The office acted after receiving a complaint from a citizen, he said. No suspects have been named.

    “We’re now reviewing the facts to see whether they warrant prosecution of a crime,” said Moellers. “We’re only at the beginning and need to sort all aspects of the issue.”

    German data regulators are already investigating how cars Google employed to drive around taking pictures for Street View ended up with private data from Wi-Fi networks that weren’t password-protected. Google said May 17 it deleted data mistakenly gathered from Wi-Fi networks in Ireland and was aiming to do the same in other countries.

    The Mountain View, California-based company is increasingly colliding with Europe’s data regulators who say it is neglecting privacy as it introduces features such as Google Buzz and Street View. Google has 79 percent of the search-engine market in Europe.

    A Google spokeswoman reiterated today via phone that the company was working with data-protection regulators in relevant countries to answer questions. “Our priority is to delete the data which we mistakenly collected,” she said.

    Blurring Techniques

    Officials from 30 European countries last week said they want Google to further improve blurring techniques used to disguise images in Street View and consider manually tweaking images where faces or license plates can be recognized.

    Google Chief Executive Officer Eric Schmidt has said personal data the company erroneously gathered for Street View wasn’t used in any way. Speaking at a conference outside London yesterday, he said Google negotiates “hard” with governments on privacy issues. It has the most “privacy-centric” policy, he said.

    Concern about Google’s data-collection is among many run- ins the company has had with authorities in Europe.

    In February, three Google employees were sentenced to six- month terms by an Italian court, which found them guilty of privacy violations. The case stemmed from a video clip that was uploaded to Google Video in 2006, which showed a group of school students bullying an autistic classmate.

    Book Scanning

    A Paris court in December found Google’s book-scanning project violated some publishers’ and authors’ copyrights.

    In the U.S., Google Buzz, a service introduced in February that lets people share photos and comments, created an outcry after it pulled users’ contacts from Google Gmail accounts automatically and displayed them to others.

    Google is being sued in a California court over the service, after a letter sent to federal antitrust authorities in March by 10 members of Congress.

    Johannes Caspar, the data-protection commissioner of Hamburg, said that he would like to receive information from U.S. government agencies about the Google Street View data collection effort.

    “We wonder what authorities in the U.S. will do against Google,” he said in an interview.

    Consumer Watchdog

    The U.S. Federal Trade Commission received a letter on May 17 from Consumer Watchdog, a Santa Monica, California-based group that frequently criticizes Google, calling for an investigation into the Street View matter.

    Today in a letter, Representatives Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, asked FTC Commissioner Jon Leibowitz if his agency has launched an investigation.

    Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said his Washington-based group is writing a letter to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission urging an investigation. The Google effort may have violated federal wiretap laws, he said.

    “This is about the integrity of the U.S. communications network,” Rotenberg said in an interview.

    –With assistance by Claudia Rach in Berlin and Jeff Bliss in Washington. Editors: Robert Valpuesta, Robin Meszoly

    To contact the reporter on this story: Karin Matussek in Frankfurt via [email protected]

    To contact the editor responsible for this story: Anthony Aarons at [email protected]

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