Google's Street View under scrutiny

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Google co-founder Larry Page got an earful in Germany today from the country's Foreign Minister. Berlin is upset over recent revelations that the California company collected private data from individual's open wi-fi networks as part of its Street View project. A German prosecutor has launched a criminal investigation into Google's activities, and other European countries may follow. The World's Clark Boyd has our story.

MARCO WERMAN: Google co-founder, Larry Page, got an earful from Germany's foreign minister today. The German government is upset over recent revelations that Google collected private data from individuals' open Wi-Fi networks as part of Google's street view project, you know the one that uses camera-equipped cars to snap pictures of your street for Google Maps. The German prosecutor has launched a criminal investigation into Google's activities and other European countries may follow. The World's Clark Boyd has our story.

CLARK BOYD: It's been a rough week for Google in Europe. Last Friday, in a company blog post, Google admitted that its street view vehicles were doing more than just taking pictures. They were also collecting information from open wireless internet networks. Ian Brown is with the Oxford Internet Institute.

IAN BROWN: Initially Google's claim to that was just to help them map the location of networks, that they weren't actually collecting any data from the Wi-Fi. However, after the German authorities asked for an audit of what Google had been doing, Google are now saying oh, we realize that by mistake we also were collecting private data from people's Wi-Fi networks.

BOYD: For its part, Google says that the amount of personal data collected would have been mere fragments. That answer isn't good enough says the European Privacy Association's Pietro Paganini.

PIETRO PAGANINI: We exactly don't understand what they mean. So it could be an entire email, an entire word document, an image, whatever. So we want them to explain exactly why they've been collecting this information, what type of information and for which purpose?

BOYD: For the most part, Google has been eating humble pie. Co-founder Sergei Brin said the company had "screwed up". Spokesman Peter Barron promised an internal inquiry and blamed the incident on a break down in communication among teams of engineers. Barron said the company acted swiftly.

PETER BARRON: As soon as we became aware of it, we grounded the street view cars and we isolated the data and we're now working with the data protection people to delete that data. It's just worth pointing out that the data was never wanted by the project leaders and it was never used in any project.

BOYD: Also, some have argued, these were Wi-Fi networks that individuals didn't protect with passwords or encryption. So, the thinking goes, weren't these people kind of asking for it? Wasn't it kind of like leaving the digital front door open and asking people not to look in? Speaking at a Google event in Britain yesterday, CEO Eric Schmidt put it this way; no harm, no foul he said. Who was harmed? Name the person. Ian Brown of the Oxford Internet Institute says Europeans are unlikely to feel comforted by that attitude.

BROWN: Europe has very stringent data protection and privacy laws which Google were clearly breaking by doing this. So for the CEO of Google to say well, it was an honest mistake, we didn't hurt anybody isn't really all that relevant in the context of European law.

BOYD: And there are good reasons behind why European countries have such strict laws. Matthew Newman is a spokesman with the European Commission in Brussels.

MATTHEW NEWMAN: Many countries in the EU suffered under dictatorial regimes. Secret Service Agents were your next door neighbor. So these companies that operate here, they have to understand that there is a genuine concern by Europeans and they cannot just ignore that.

BOYD: Google is learning its lesson the hard way. German prosecutors have launched a criminal probe into the incident. Other European countries are considering more detailed investigations into Google's actions. For The World, this is Clark Boyd.