Google in Catch-22 Over Wi-Fi Data and Privacy

As Google (s goog) tries to extricate itself from the privacy furor over personal data being collected from Wi-Fi networks by its Street View cars, the company says it’s hit a roadblock that prevents it from complying with authorities who want the data turned over to them. According to a statement the company made to the New York Times, it’s refusing to give German authorities the hard drives that contain personal data collected (inadvertently, Google says) from that country’s residents over open wireless networks because doing so would breach the same German privacy rules that were broken by the initial data collection itself. In a statement, a Google spokesman in London named Peter Barron said:

As granting access to payload data creates legal challenges in Germany which we need to review, we are continuing to discuss the appropriate legal and logistical process for making the data available. We hope, given more time, to be able to resolve this difficult issue.

Google admitted recently that it had been accidentally collecting data from open Wi-Fi networks that were passed by its Street View cars. Although the company originally said that no personally identifiable information had been accumulated in this manner, it later admitted that this was not true, and that some emails and other data might have been collected as well. It then pledged to destroy the data, but agreed to do so in a way that would allow governments and other groups to verify that it had done so properly.

The company has subsequently destroyed data that was collected in Denmark, Ireland and Austria, but didn’t allow authorities to see or inspect it beforehand. Several countries — including Britain, Germany, France, Spain and Italy — are instead asking Google not to destroy the data collected from their countries, so that it can be used in potential court cases against the company (Street View has been a contentious program in Europe even before the recent privacy issues over wireless data). Meanwhile, German authorities say they’re contemplating laying charges against the search provider for its behavior, and the chairman of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission told Congress last week that he’s also looking into whether the regulator should take action in the case.

Some privacy advocates say the company’s refusal to allow authorities to see the data it collected raises questions about whether it did so accidentally, and just how much personal data was collected. Simon Davies, director of London-based Privacy International, told the New York Times that “if the company is fighting this so hard, it suggests there is more to this than meets the eye. The real question is: What was Google collecting from unwitting individuals and why? So far, nobody really knows.”

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