June 3, 2010 11:04 pm

Google to hand over intercepted data

Google will begin handing over to European regulators the rogue data it intercepted from private WiFi internet connections within the next two days, in an effort to defuse growing controversy over its latest privacy blunder.

Eric Schmidt, chief executive, said the world’s largest internet company would hand over information initially to the German, French and Spanish data protection authorities. Germany is considering a criminal investigation into the practice. Google faced a stand-off with Hamburg privacy authorities last week over whether it would be legal to hand over the rogue data. It now appears willing to reach a compromise.

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The company will also publish the results of an external audit into the practice, in which cars photographing streets for Google’s Street View service ended up also collecting snippets of personal information from unsecured WiFi networks.

Mr Schmidt admitted he could not rule out the possibility that personal data such as bank account details were among the data collected.

“We screwed up. Let’s be very clear about that,” Mr Schmidt said. “If you are honest about your mistakes it is the best defence for it not happening again.”

Mr Schmidt also said the company would conduct an internal review into all its privacy practices, checking all of the codes related to collecting data. It will reveal the results of this within the next month.

There is also an internal investigation being conducted against the male software engineer responsible for the rogue code, which was in “clear violation” of Google’s rules.

Mr Schmidt believes transparency will help it regain user trust. However, he was adamant that the company culture, which allows engineers freedom to create new products and services, would not change.

The “20 per cent time” during which employees are allowed to pursue their own projects, for example, will remain in place and there is no plan for an overall audit of these schemes.

“It would be a terrible thing to put a chilling effect on creativity,” Mr Schmidt said.

He said it was not clear whether the rogue Street View code, which one of its engineers devised while driving around the Stanford University campus checking for WiFi connections, was a “20 per cent time” project. He is also convinced that Google’s mission to index all the world’s information is valid.

“You are better off having a company operating on a set of principles, that you can at least model, than a political process, which clearly does not produce rational outcomes,” Mr Schmidt said.

Google also faced privacy concerns over the launch of its Buzz social networking service earlier this year, and over a recent hacker attack on its computer systems. However, Mr Schmidt said data retained by Google was more secure than that kept by individuals and companies on their own computer systems.

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