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Google data collection spurs UK inquiry

By Sylvia Hui
Associated Press / June 23, 2010

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LONDON — Britain has become the latest country to open an investigation into whether Google Inc. violated communication and privacy laws by mistakenly gathering data over public Wi-Fi networks.

London’s Metropolitan Police said yesterday it was looking into complaints that the search engine picked up people’s online activities through unprotected home and business networks while photographing neighborhoods for its “Street View’’ mapping feature.

“The matter is now under consideration. It is yet to be determined what, if any, offenses may have allegedly occurred,’’ police said in a statement.

It is the latest in a string of controversies about Google’s access to private data including e-mail addresses, passwords, bank account information, and Web browsing histories. Last month, Google acknowledged it had mistakenly collected data from public Wi-Fi networks in more than 30 countries.

The company sought to persuade critics that it did not misuse the data, telling Congress that any data it collected was “not used to identify any specific individual or household.’’

It had also said it stopped grabbing Wi-Fi data from its Street View vehicles since it discovered the data collection problem last month following an inquiry by German regulators.

Privacy International, a London-based privacy watchdog that filed the case with British police, said it had received complaints from residents who feared their personal data could be at risk.

“When Google was trawling around the world’s streets on ‘Street View,’ they didn’t tell people they were also picking up their wireless communications,’’ said Simon Davies, the director of Privacy International.

Google UK did not immediately return an e-mail yesterday seeking comment.

The French independent privacy watchdog CNIL said last week that Google, following a complaint, had handed over copies of browsing history, banking details and other fragments of data sucked up by Google technicians cruising French streets.

Police in Australia have also launched their own investigations.