Last updated: May 21, 2010 12:17 am

UK activists warn Google on erasing data

The pressure on Google over its interception of private WiFi data intensified on Thursday after a UK watchdog said it would complain to the police if the company did not stop deleting the data by Monday.

Google revealed last week it had accidentally collected 600GB of private data from homes and businesses, while taking pictures for its Street View service. The data were from 30 countries and had been collected over the past three years.

Data protection regulators in Germany have already launched a criminal investigation into the data gathering, while authorities in France, Italy and Spain are examining whether Google broke their national data laws.

A number of national data protection authorities, including those in the UK, Ireland, Denmark and Austria, have asked for the information to be destroyed. However, Belgium on Thursday said it had asked Google not to delete the data, reversing its original stance.

Simon Davies of Privacy International, the UK-based privacy watchdog, said he would seek a prosecution for unlawful interception under the UK’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, unless the data were secured.

“Last weekend, on the instructions of the Irish data protection commissioner, Google destroyed all WiFi data relating to collection in Ireland. This action has the effect of removing any chance of further legal action of investigation. The action could be seen as collusion to destroy evidence,” Privacy International wrote in an open letter to European privacy commissioners this week.

Google said on Thursday: “We are reaching out to the data protection authorities in all the relevant countries and are working with them to answer any questions they have.”

Lawyers said Google could also be prosecuted under the UK’s Computer Misuse Act, which carries stiffer penalties, including jail sentences.

“The regulators and Google are focusing on this as a data protection issue, which is completely toothless,” said Clive Gringras, head of internet at Olswang, a law firm.

“This looks like a classic hack . . .and hacking is a criminal offence. We have never known such a colossal grabbing of data,” claimed Mr Gringras.

Following Privacy International’s ultimatum, the UK Information Commissioner’s Office wrote to other authorities to warn against deleting data. The ICO has not ruled out taking action against Google.

A suit by two people filed in Portland, Oregon federal court this week against Google accused the company of wrongly intercepting unsecured WiFi transmissions and asked for class-action status for the case. Vicki Van Valin of Oregon and Neil Mertz of Washington said they had sent personal information including credit card numbers and banking data over their home networks.

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