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Coakley joins Google queries

Attorney general adds her concerns that mapping process violated privacy

At left, a recorder that a Google employee in would use to gather information. At left, a recorder that a Google employee in would use to gather information. (Jacques Brinon/ Associated Press/ File 2009)
By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / June 19, 2010

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Attorney General Martha Coakley has joined an effort to find out whether Internet search giant Google Inc. has collected personal information from citizens without their permission.

Coakley said yesterday that she and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan sent a letter to Google, asking the company to provide details on the information collected from wireless Internet users as part of its street view mapping program. “We are concerned with any instances in which the personal information of Massachusetts consumers may have been compromised,’’ said Coakley in a statement.

A spokeswoman for Coakley’s office said that Google could be liable for civil penalties under Massachusetts data privacy protection laws.

Google suspended its Wi-Fi mapping operations in May, and company spokeswoman Christine Chen said yesterday there are no plans to resume the practice.

Google’s collection of private information is being examined or challenged around the world. Attorneys general of 30 states, including Coakley, held a conference call last week to consider joint action against the company. The Federal Trade Commission is studying Google’s privacy practices, and on Capitol Hill, Representative Edward Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Representative Joe Barton, Republican of Texas, cochairmen of the House Privacy Caucus, earlier this month demanded more information regarding its relevant policies. Dissatisfied with a detailed response from Google, Barton has called for hearings on the matter.

The company is also under investigation in several countries, including Canada, France, Germany, and Australia. Yesterday, French investigators analyzing data provided by Goo gle said the company had captured people’s Internet passwords and e-mail addresses without permission from the individuals.

In addition, Google has been hit by three class-action lawsuits, including one filed last month by Galaxy Internet Services Inc. of Newton. The lawsuit, which seeks $10 million in damages, contends that Google illegally collected Internet data from Galaxy’s paying customers, and from people using its free wireless Internet services in Boston’s Faneuil Hall, Government Center, and Grove Hall areas.

Google has confessed error in the matter, but not wrongdoing. “It was a mistake for us to include code in our software that collected [sensitive information], but we don’t believe we did anything illegal,’’ said the company in an e-mailed statement. “We’re working with the relevant authorities to answer their questions and concerns.’’

Last month, Google revealed it had inadvertently collected about 600 gigabytes of data from wireless Internet users. The information was collected as Google used cars equipped with cameras, GPS navigation systems, and Wi-Fi receivers to generate maps of cities around the world.

Every Wi-Fi device transmits a unique identification code. By matching the code with the location of the router, Google can create a Wi-Fi map of a city. A cellphone owner can use that map to pinpoint his own location, or find other nearby places of interest. But in the process of collecting router codes, Google also picked up the information being transmitted over the routers. That information could include such private information as users’ names and the content of e-mail messages.

Ted Morgan, chief executive of Skyhook Wireless Inc. of Boston, said Google could have avoided the problem by using a different technique. Skyhook, which invented Wi-Fi mapping, transmits digital greetings to all nearby routers. These routers reply by sending back their identification code, and nothing else.

Morgan said that Google used a “passive sniffing’’ technique, which simply picked up any nearby Wi-Fi transmissions. Morgan said that can produce more comprehensive maps, but, he added, “the problem is you also pick up this private network traffic.’’

Morgan said Google could have instantly discarded the data, but “engineers have a philosophy that, if you’re capturing data, capture it all, and then figure out what to do with it later.’’

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.