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Google Street View Privacy Probes Widen Across Europe

Google Inc., under investigation in Germany for the data-gathering practices of its Street View mapping service, now faces probes in Spain, France, Italy and the Czech Republic for possible violation of privacy laws.

Spain’s Data Protection Authority yesterday ordered an investigation of whether Google, owner of the world’s biggest search engine, breached national privacy rules by collecting and storing data from Wi-Fi networks. France, Italy and the Czech Republic said they are also investigating.

“For the time being the greatest damage is to public relations rather to Google’s business model or ability to operate in some fundamental way across Europe,” Greg Sterling, an analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence in San Francisco, said in an e-mail.

Street View allows Google users to click on maps to see photographs of roadsides. Google, based in Mountain View, California, said May 17 that it deleted data mistakenly gathered from Wi-Fi networks in Ireland and was aiming to do the same in other countries.

“We screwed up” by collecting information from Wi-Fi networks while gathering data for Street View, Sergey Brin, the company’s co-founder, said yesterday, in response to government probes of his company’s privacy practices. Google is adding to its internal controls after it mistakenly captured the data, said Brin.

Spanish Agency

The Spanish agency “will call on Google to explain whether it has captured data without the consent of citizens in Spain,” it said in an e-mailed statement May 19. It sent a formal request urging Google “to block the data associated with wireless networks gathered in Spanish territory.”

The Czech Office for Personal Data Protection started looking into potential issues with Google Street View in April, Hana Stepankova said by phone today.

A set of conditions was sent to Google this week on what it must do to comply with national privacy protection law. Google will also have to register its Street View database in the country, she said.

The Hamburg Prosecutors’ Office said yesterday that it’s investigating people at Google on suspicion of criminal data capture. German data regulators are already looking into how cars that Google used to take pictures for Street View ended up with private data from Wi-Fi networks that weren’t password-protected.

Google fell $3.94 to $494.43 on the Nasdaq Stock Market yesterday. The shares have dropped 20 percent this year.

Privacy Rights

Officials from 30 European countries on May 11 adopted a common approach to keep Google from infringing privacy rights as the service is rolled out in Europe. They said they wanted Google to improve blurring techniques used to disguise images and to make faces and license plates harder to recognize.

“The product as such is not in breach, but more measures have to be taken to improve how images are gathered and used,” Gerard Lommel, a Luxembourg member of the so-called Article 29 Data Protection Working Party, said May 11. The group is made up of the European Union’s 27 nations, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.

Switzerland’s data-protection agency sued Google in November for allegedly failing to comply with proposals to make it harder to identify people and cars on Street View. That case is pending.

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