Google’s WiFi data harvest draws widening probes and lawsuits

Any penance Google could ultimately pay for violating privacy sentiments across the planet has become a bit more unpredictable. Canada on Tuesday, 01June2010, became the latest nation to launch a formal investigation into Google’s practice of harvesting personal Wi-Fi data from open wireless networks all across the planet.

“We have a number of questions about how this collection could have happened,” Canadian Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart said in a statement issued Tuesday. “We’ve determined that an investigation is the best way to find the answers.”

Canada’s move follows confirmation that a U.S. Federal Trade Commission investigation of Google is also underway. The advocacy group Consumer Watchdog requested the FTC probe on May 17. The agency, which has a longstanding practice of not confirming or denying whether a corporation is under investigation,  responded that it was “reviewing” that request.

However, testifying before members of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee last week, FTC chairman Jon Leibovitz acknowledged that his agency is taking a “very, very close look” at Google’s Wi-Fi data-harvesting practices. U.S. lawmakers who have raised concerns about the matter include Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, and Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass.

Canada joins Belgium, Britain, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland in asking Google to retain Wi-Fi data collected in those respective nations. Hong Kong and the Hamburg data protection supervisor in Germany, meanwhile, have asked to inspect the data, says Anne-Marie Hayden, spokeswoman for the Canada’s Privacy Commission.

“Denmark and Ireland formally asked Google to destroy the data collected there, and we understand that Austria has placed a temporary ban on Google Street View cars while it looks into this issue,” says Hayden.

Google has admitted to collecting some 600 gigabytes of personal data transmitted over non-secured wireless networks in more than 30 nations. The company has stopped collecting such data, and delivered all of the data gathered so far to a security firm, ISEC Partners, for safekeeping. “We’re working with the relevant authorities to answer their questions and concerns,” says Google spokesman Jay Nancarrow.

In April, Google admitted to German privacy regulators that vehicles specially-equipped to systematically shoot photos of street scenes for Google Maps also carried gear to collect data moving across unencrypted wireless networks situated inside homes and businesses. The company insisted at the time that only basic Wi-Fi location data was being collected. But after Germany requested an audit, Google subsequently disclosed that it had mistakenly collected personal data, as well.

In addition to widening government probes, Google is now also facing privacy-violation civil lawsuits recently filed in Washington D.C., California, Massachusetts and Oregon over the Wi-Fi data it has already collected.

Like Google, Microsoft dispatches fleets of vehicles, as well as airplanes, equipped with high-tech cameras and huge digital storage drives to systematically amass photos for Bing Maps. But Microsoft does not collect any private-user data, says Adam Sohn, a Bing senior director.

By Byron Acohido