Security

Google Street View cars back too soon, says French watchdog

Google said its Street View cars resumed their photography of French streets on Friday, annoying the French data protection authority, which launched an investigation into the privacy implications of the service earlier this year.

France’s National Commission on Computing and Liberty (CNIL) said it was “premature” for Google to restart its collection of street images, given that its investigation of those activities is still not complete.

After Google admitted on May 14 that its Street View cars had collected not just photos but also communications data from unencrypted Wi-Fi networks as they drove around, CNIL ordered Google to stop collecting such data without the knowledge of those concerned. The CNIL said it wanted to make sure Google did not collect such data illegally in future, and to provide CNIL with information about the way it collected such data for use in its Street View service. Google gave CNIL access to the data on June 4.

Google used the Wi-Fi data to improve the accuracy of location detection in its mobile service: by associating the SSID (Service Set Identifier) broadcast by a Wi-Fi network with a particular location in its database, it could determine from where Wi-Fi-capable mobile devices were connecting to services such as Google Maps or Google Latitude.

However, the data collected by Google’s Street View cars went far beyond the SSID broadcast by the Wi-Fi networks, and included communications data such as “e-mail access passwords [and] extracts of the content of e-mail messages,” CNIL said in mid-June.

Google said it has now removed the Wi-Fi equipment from its vehicles, which will now only collect digital photographs and 3D scans of the buildings they pass.

German privacy regulators are concerned about more than just the Wi-Fi data. They want German residents to have a chance to stop Google publishing images of their homes, even before those images go online. Google’s approach in other countries has been to publish first, and remove images if it receives a complaint.

South Korean police too have taken an interest in the service, raiding Google’s offices there earlier this month as part of an investigation into unauthorized data collection and illegal wiretapping.

While scanning streets around the world is costing Google money and goodwill, the return can be significant: The introduction of Street View imagery typically boosts traffic to the Google Maps service by 20 percent in the areas covered, a company spokeswoman said.

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