March 21, 2011 8:15 pm

Google fined for gathering online data

Google has been fined by the French data protection agency for its collection of online data, including e-mail exchanges and passwords, as it mapped urban landscapes for its Street View service.

The US internet group was fined €100,000 ($142,000) by the French National Commission for Computing and Liberties (CNIL) after it collected data over unencrypted WiFi networks without the knowledge of internet users.

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Google admitted last year that its fleet of cars photographing buildings for its Street View service had collected the information, sent over unsecured home wireless networks, due to a programming error.

Although the group has long faced scrutiny of its Street View service, this is the first time a regulator has fined it for the breach.

“The way they collected the data were unfair,” said Yann Padova, secretary-general of the independent regulator.

“CNIL also considers there was a lack of co-operation from Google in terms of the information given about the software within the Google cars,” he added.

The company said on Monday that it was “profoundly sorry” for the collection of data. “As soon as we realised what had happened, we stopped collecting all WiFi data from our Street View cars and immediately informed the authorities,” said Peter Fleischer, Google’s global privacy counsel.

Google said that deleting the data “has always been our priority”, adding it was still studying the decision to see if it would appeal.

 
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The fine is the largest the French regulator has issued to date, although it falls short of the possible €150,000 penalty as it is the first breach by Google.

“By imposing one of the largest fines ever issued in France, the CNIL is also sending a signal to its counterparts in Europe that data protection authorities should step up their enforcement activities since the same activity occurred elsewhere in Europe,” said professor Joel Reidenberg, an expert on internet privacy at Fordham University in New York. “This is a significant case because it sends a powerful message that the CNIL is serious about enforcement and is willing to use its enhanced authority.”

The French watchdog was critical of the US company’s collection of tens of thousands of WiFi hotspot locations, calling the method of gaining such information without the consent of users “unfair”, arguing it had helped Google acquire a “dominant position” in the field of location services.

It noted that Google had stopped collecting information on WiFi hot spots via its Street View vehicles, but said the collection of access points through its location mobile app continued.

Additional reporting by Tim Bradshaw in London

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