European Officials Rap Google For Street View Data Collection Error

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Saturday Ilse Aigner, Germany’s consumer protection minister, issued a statement criticizing Google for what it called the “alarming incident” and said it showed that Google still lacks an understanding for the need for consumer privacy, according to an Associated Press story.

Friday Google acknowledged that while its cars were taking pictures for its Street View service, it unintentionally picked up random data such as e-mails and Web addresses through unsecured Wi-Fi networks. Altogether the company said it collected some 600 gigabytes of such data in more than 30 countries.

The admission came in a blog post from Alan Eustace, Google senior vice president of engineering and research. Nine days earlier the data protection authority in Hamburg, Germany, had asked that it be allowed to audit the Wi-Fi data collected by Street View and Eustace said that prompted Google to re-examine everything it had been collected.

Eustace admitted that an April 27 blog that said no personal information was collected was incorrect. Google said it obtained the information as the company collected information on Wi-Fi hotspots that can be used to provide location-based services.

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Aigner said Google must cooperate better with data protection authorities. "According to the information available to us so far, Google has for years penetrated private networks, apparently illegally," her office said in a statement Saturday, according to the AP story. The German ministry is now demanding that Google follow through on pledges to disclose its activities to data protection authorities in all countries.

"It also has to be disclosed to German data protection agencies which information is registered and how the illegitimately gathered data of unprotected wireless networks will be deleted," Aigner's ministry said, according to the AP story

Google said it is currently in touch with regulators in several countries, including the U.S., Germany, France, Brazil and Hong Kong, about how to dispose of the data, which company executives contend was never used in its products and services.

Johannes Caspar, the data protection supervisor for Hamburg, who is leading the German government’s dealings with Google on the issue, said the company’s revelation of illegal data collection would be taken up by a panel of European national data protection chiefs that advises the European Commission, said a story in The New York Times.

“This is a data scandal of a much larger magnitude,” Mr. Caspar was quoted as saying. “We are talking here about the large-scale collection of private data on individuals.”

The Times story said the latest revelation further erodes Google’s reputation as a responsible data steward. “I think this is going to damage the company irreparably,” said Simon Davies, the director of Privacy International, a London-based group of privacy advocates from 40 countries, in the story. “Three years ago the company was wearing a halo. But over the past year it has moved substantially in the direction of being perceived as Big Brother.”