Google faces probes and lawsuit over Wi-Fi spying

The company is being investigated by European authorities and is the target of at least one U.S. lawsuit after admitting it had spied on some Internet users.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read

Less than a week after admitting it had inadvertently spied on some Wi-Fi users, Google is the target in several investigations in Europe and at least one lawsuit in the U.S.

On Tuesday, Pacific Northwest residents Vicki Van Valin and Neil Mertz filed a class action lawsuit against Google alleging their privacy was violated when Google's Street View vehicles drove by their homes, detecting and storing data from their open Wi-Fi Internet connections used in their homes. The news of the lawsuit was first reported by TechEye.net.

This is one of Google's Street View cars, photographed by Gabriele Peloso. Gabriele Peloso/dnakiller

The case was filed in an Oregon district court. It is asking for statutory damages of $100 per day per person violated or $10,000 for each member in the class. The suit also asks for punitive damages as determined by a jury, plus attorney fees. If successful, the suit could cost Google millions of dollars given the number of people who could potentially file as part of the class.

The lawsuit asserts that Google willfully obtained and stored private information from personal Wi-Fi hotspots as its vehicles, equipped with cameras and "packet sniffers" drove around neighborhoods throughout Oregon.

Google admitted in a blog post Friday that its Street View cars had unintentionally intercepted fragments of data from open Wi-Fi networks for periods of 200 milliseconds at a time. Google said that it didn't know that it was collecting or storing this information. In the blog post, an official blamed the snafu on code that should not have ended up in the final product. The company said it was contacting regulators and deleting the data.

The Oregon lawsuit is asking that the data that was collected not be deleted until it is examined as part of this class action lawsuit.

Meanwhile, authorities in Germany, Spain, and Italy said Wednesday they were investigating Google and its Street View service, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Google's admission that it had inadvertently obtained this data came as a result of an investigation launched by German officials in Hamburg. Prosecutors there were investigating some Google employees to see if any laws had been broken by Google's Street View service. At first Google denied it had collected private information from unsecured Wi-Fi hot spots. As part of its investigation, German officials were going to audit Google's data collection. Google then admitted that it had collected some personal data. The company says it's cooperating with German officials.

The Italian data protection agency is also looking into Google's data collection practices. It wants to know when Google began collecting this data; why it was collecting it; and for how long it stored the data, according to the Journal. The agency is also questioning Google as to what it planned to do with the data.

Spanish authorities also began an investigation this week that looks at whether Google has violated Spanish privacy laws. The data protection agency said the service could violate the Organic Data Protection Act, and is asking that Google block the traffic data associated with the wireless networks gathered in Spanish territory, the Journal reported.

Officials in Ireland and the United Kingdom have asked that data collected and stored from neighborhoods in their countries be destroyed.

So far the U.S. government hasn't announced an investigation into Google's practices, but Congressional leaders are asking the Federal Trade Commission to get involved. On Wednesday, Reps. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, sent a letter to the head of the FTC.

A Google representative on Wednesday would not discuss details of any investigation with CNET. But the company said, "We are working with the relevant authorities to answer their questions and concerns."

Separately, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said Wednesday during a speech at the Google I/O conference in San Francisco that the Internet giant "screwed up"by collecting personal data through open wireless networks. But he promised the company would do everything it could to regain and retain trust of its users.

Google has already been accused of not taking privacy issues seriously. In February, Google acknowledged that it had made mistakes with the launch of a new social-networking service called Buzz. It had obscured controls that allowed users to hide their social connections. In response to the backlash, Google promised to re-evaluate how it tests new products.