Germany and Hong Kong are objecting to Google's refusal to let them look at personal information the search engine accidentally collected from unsecured WiFi networks. Google has admitted its Street View cars that take pictures for Google Maps accidentally collected fragments of 600GB of e-mails, passwords and Web browsing histories from users all over the world. Google cites legal issues in Germany and ongoing dialogue with the privacy commissioner in Hong Kong in declining to provide what regulators want.
The choppy waters around Google's "WiSpy" accident aren't getting
any smoother, as regulators in Germany and Hong Kong are objecting to Google's
refusal to let them look at personal information the search engine accidentally
collected from unsecured WiFi networks.
Google earlier in May admitted its Street View cars,
which take pictures for Google
Maps, had accidentally collected fragments of 600GB of e-mails, passwords and information about Web browsing
habits from users all over the world.
Google has deleted this data in Ireland,
Denmark and Austria,
but has yet to delete the data in the United
Hong Kong, Spain
These are just a handful of the 33 areas where Google's computers grabbed this
so-called payload data from 2007 until 2010.
Germany and Hong
Kong have asked to inspect the information Google collected from
the Street View cars.
Johannes Caspar, the Hamburg
data protection supervisor, gave Google until May 26 to turn over the hard
drive containing the payload data Google collected in Germany,
and to be given access to a Street View car.
Caspar said he would consider fining Google
for failing to
fulfill his requests.
However, prosecutors in Germany
face an obstacle in pressing any charges because the country has no corporate
criminal liability laws. Prosecutors would have to instead prove that Google
Street View workers deliberately broke wire-tapping laws.
A Google spokesperson told eWEEK May 27 the company could not meet Caspar's
request to see the information due to Germany's
own privacy laws.
"We want to cooperate with these requests-indeed, we have already given
him access to a car-but as granting access to payload data creates legal
challenges in Germany which we need to review, we are continuing to discuss the
appropriate legal and logistical process for making the data available. We
hope, given more time, to be able to resolve this difficult issue."
The situation is a bit different in Hong Kong, where Privacy
Commissioner Roderick Woo threatened to sanction Google after the company did
not respond to his request to see the data it had collected in Hong
Woo told the New York Times
that Google did not meet his May
24 deadline to give him the information he requested. He threatened to
"resort to a more assertive action," which, while vague, likely means
a fine of some kind.
However, the Google spokesperson told eWEEK the company has since "been
in touch with the privacy commissioner and responded to his questions earlier
Cries of discontent over this flouting of user privacy are no quieter in the
United States, where
Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz told Congress that his group
would investigate the incident.
Reps. Joe Barton, Henry Waxman and Edward Markey wrote a May 26
letter to Google CEO Eric Schmidt
saying they wanted to know how much
personal data the company gathered from what has become known in some quarters
as the WiSpy incident.
Even if Google manages to avoid legal prosecution in the United
States and abroad over this matter, the
incident is another black eye for a company that has already suffered a major
privacy debacle in 2010.
Days after launching Google Buzz
in February, the company was bombarded by complaints
that the service exposed users' contacts to anyone using Google. The search
engine has backtracked since then, adding more privacy controls to Buzz.