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France joins privacy probe targeting Google's mapping service

Text by Sébastian SEIBT

Latest update : 2010-06-19

France has joined nations calling for an inquiry into Google's practices as it gathers data for a controversial mapping service after it emerged that Google had also collected personal information sent over unsecured Wi-Fi systems.

Following the lead of countries worldwide, France’s privacy watchdog, the National Commission for Information and Freedom (CNIL), has criticised Google’s collection of personal information over Wi-Fi networks as it charts city streets for its Street View mapping service. CNIL president Alex Turk noted in a report issued Thursday that the US internet giant had collected “passwords associated with IP addresses and extracts of emails”.

Small Google cars have been travelling the streets in cities across the world since 2007 to map out each boulevard, square and avenue, aimed at augmenting services like Street View, Google Maps or Latitude. These vehicles come equipped with scanners that can detect the Wi-Fi connections in a neighbourhood, ostensibly to test the existing internet infrastructure. In the process, personal information and IP addresses from password-free Wi-Fi networks were also collected.

Questions of intent

Whether such information was collected in error, as Google claims, or by intent remains the crux of the issue for several nations who have demanded to review Google’s records since the start of May. In all, Google is believed to have accumulated almost 600 gigabytes of personal data. Now the question remains whether Google was operating in accordance with its famous company slogan: “Don’t be evil’.

When several European countries, including Italy, Ireland, Germany and France, last month requested the data collected by the “Google bus”, Google dragged its feet. The Mountain View, California, internet giant complied only after a German deadline had expired and then waited until it had received a formal request from France.

Such hesitation seems a far cry from the company’s rhetoric. A May 15 entry in Google’s blog stated that the collection of personal information had been done “in error” and that the data “will not be used”. Google co-founder Sergei Bit and chairman Eric Schmidt acknowledged major mistakes had been made.

Criminal investigation

The internet giant seems to have been humbled, for now. After the torrent of protests that followed new privacy rules for Facebook, no company wants to find itself at the centre of a new storm over accessing personal details.

Australia, for one, has launched a criminal investigation into the affair. Minister of Transport Stephen Conroy even said that Google’s actions had “given him goosebumps”. The company is also finding itself in hot water in the United States, Google’s main market. Several civil suits for violating privacy have been filed against Google in US states since the end of May. The Federal Trade Commission, the US commerce watchdog, is conducting an informal inquiry into the matter.

Date created : 2010-06-18


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