New Google privacy row erupts over Wi-Fi data

1st Jun 2010

A privacy group has called for a Parliamentary inquiry into Google’s wireless data gathering activity, just as the search giant appears to be on the verge of striking a compromise deal with European data protection authorities on the matter.

According to the Daily Telegraph, Google has mapped every wireless network in the UK in order to use the information for commercial purposes. The vendor has entered information harvested from Wi-Fi wireless routers that are used to connect users to the internet into a huge database.

The information was collected by radio aerials located on the firm’s Street View cars, which have now photographed nearly every home in the country. The data is then employed in Google’s ‘Maps for Mobile’ application in order to locate mobile phones and enable consumers to access local information about restaurants, cinemas, theatres and the like.

The project had remained secret until a probe, undertaken by the German authorities last month, forced the company to admit that it had "mistakenly" downloaded data such as bits of emails from unsecured wireless networks not protected by passwords.

Google pointed out that the information, which includes network identification details, is publicly available because wireless network signals beam out beyond the property in which they are located. But it has now suspended the activities of its Street View cars globally, although their work in the UK is now believed to be complete.

The company said last week that it had not notified data protection authorities of the situation because "we did not think it was necessary", adding that: "It’s clear with hindsight that greater transparency would have been better".

A number of authorities, including those in the UK and US, have asked Google to retain the downloaded emails pending a full enquiry, but it is unclear how existing regulations cover wireless data.

A spokesman for Privacy International told the Telegraph: "We think it will historically be viewed as a horrendous breach of law and something which a better regulator with a better understanding of the issues and the technology would never have allowed to happen."

As a result, he called for a Parliamentary probe into the situation to ensure that Google explained what it was up to in both a technical and commercial sense.

"The idea that it can log everyone’s Wi-Fi details because it is all 'public' is a bogus argument. It is bogus because of the question of scale and the question of integration with other information, which would amount to a huge breach of our privacy," the spokesperson said.

The Information Commissioner’s Office said that if it found evidence of significant wrongdoing, it would "of course investigate and consider what action should be taken."

The news came as Google indicated that it was on the cusp of doing a deal with data protection authorities in Germany, France and Spain over the same Street View-related information. They have asked the vendor to hand over hard drives containing 'payload' data, which could include everything from emails to web site addresses browsed by individuals, for investigation.

Google told the Financial Times that its external lawyers that advised it not to hand over the information, but added: "We are working through it and will have some answers for the data protection authorities during the course of the week."

It also plans to respond this week to the European Union’s Article 29 Working Group, which comprises data protection officials that advise Brussels on privacy policy. The body wrote to Google last week criticising its policies relating to storing the personal information of people using its search engine. 

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