Internet giant Google is under fire for its alleged privacy breaches, with a criminal investigation in Germany now underway after the company admitted to accidentally accessing user data through WiFi networks.
The outcry comes as similar critiques have been fired against social network Facebook, with users even joining a protest that will see thousands of users delete their accounts on the last day of the month.
The Hamburg Prosecutor’s Office has started an investigation to determine whether Google broke any privacy regulations due to its gathering of user data on WiFi networks.
The problem started when Google admitted it had gathered this data while taking pictures for its Street View feature. The company attaches a camera to a car, then moves around residential areas taking photos of the surrounding features to place on the Google Maps app on the web.
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However, the company said that in the process of doing so, the software used to upload the photos actually caught some data in the process.
“In 2006 an engineer working on an experimental WiFi project wrote a piece of code that sampled all categories of publicly broadcast WiFi data,” Alan Eustace, senior vice president of engineering and research said in a blog post.
“A year later, when our mobile team started a project to collect basic WiFi network data like SSID information and MAC addresses using Google’s Street View cars, they included that code in their software – although the project leaders did not want, and had no intention of using, payload data.”
The company has also said it intends to delete this data as soon as possible. However, for some authorities, that isn’t good enough.
A spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office has said the investigation is in an early stage, and it will still be at least two weeks before any decision is made as to whether charges can be filed.
The company has been at odds with German authorities before. The country’s Data Protection Agency has requested the company blur pictures of people’s faces on Street View, and has sparred publically with the advertising giant about its privacy practices.
But it isn’t the only location where Google has run into trouble for its admission of WiFi breaches. The Italian data protection authority and the French National Commission on Computing and Liberty, along with the British Information Commissioner’s Office, have all expressed concerns about the company’s Street View debacle.
Even in Australia, privacy commissioner Karen Curtis told The Age earlier this week an investigation will go ahead to determine whether Google has broken any regulations and whether action can be taken.
“At this point in our investigation, it appears that the extent of personal information collected by Google in Australia, if any, is very limited. Nevertheless we regard such collection as a likely breach of the Privacy Act. My office will be discussing this matter further with Google, including action to be taken by Google in respect of any information it has collected.”
However, Google once again defended itself, with a spokesperson telling the publication: “As we stated in our blog post the other day, we plan to work with the authorities in the relevant countries to answer their questions and delete the data as quickly as possible”.
But the problems haven’t stopped there. Two users in Oregon are suing the company for collecting their data, but actually want to stop the company from deleting the information they have acquired.
Vicki Van Valin and Neil Mertz have sued the company and could receive $US1,000 per day for each day their data was held. The issue they have is that if Google deletes the information they have acquired about people, then no one would be able to prove an injustice had occurred.
Meanwhile, Facebook is having privacy troubles of its own. The company has announced it will simplify its privacy settings after a massive outcry of users complained their data was publically available without their knowledge.
The incident comes after a number of organisations and authorities, including the Canadian and Australian privacy commissioners, have said they will be investigating the site due to privacy complaints.
But users have had enough. A movement calling itself the QuitFacebook protest has emerged, with over 11,500 users saying they will delete their accounts on May 31.
While this is a tiny fraction of Facebook’s 400 million user base, it still represents a wider issue for the company. However, the company has already told Wired magazine it intends to release more simple privacy features within the next couple of weeks – hopefully enough time to stop more users from logging off permanently.