Police search Google’s South Korean office

South Korean police have raided Google’s office in Seoul as part of an investigation into whether the internet search giant illegally collected location data from Android-based smartphone users in the country.

Google Korea on Tuesday confirmed that a cyber crime unit had conducted a search and said that the company “will cooperate with the investigation”.

Google’s mobile advertising unit AdMob is suspected of collecting personal location information without customers’ consent or approval from the Korean Communication Commission, according to the South Korean police.

The investigation is the latest setback for Google, which is under scrutiny in the US and Europe over possible misuse of private information. The US company has already pledged to better protect users’ privacy under a landmark settlement with the US trade regulator in March pertaining to a complaint raised over the launch of Google Buzz, a social networking service.

The probe in Korea comes as both Google and Apple prepare to testify next week at a US Senate hearing on mobile privacy. Several members of the US Congress, which is considering far-reaching consumer privacy laws, have demanded explanations from the two companies about what information they compile from increasingly powerful smartphones.

Companies such as Google and Apple are racing to offer more tailored advertisements to specific consumers based on where they are and have been accused of over-stepping privacy laws in the process. Apple has blamed programming errors for its collection of data that tracked the rough location of iPhone users and has pledged to fix the problem.

Google already faces several probes in South Korea, one of Asia’s most internet-connected countries. Last month, South Korea’s top internet providers lodged an antitrust complaint against Google. They accuse the US group of stifling competition in the domestic mobile search market, by pressuring smartphone makers to pre-load only Android as the default operating system.

Google’s offices in Seoul were raided last August in relation to the company’s collection of data for its Street View mapping and photographic service. South Korean police said Google collected location information and other personal data from 600,000 wireless internet users in the country with three Street View cars.

The police said they found evidence that Google had illegally collected personal information and referred the case to prosecutors. The investigation is still under way. However, corporate raids in Korea do not necessarily lead to severe punishment.

Apple also faces investigation in South Korea over whether it broke the law by saving location data of iPhone users. The KCC has asked for an explanation from Apple on the allegations, and said it would make the same request of Google.

Recent revelations about the extent of sensitive personal data collected by smartphones and disseminated to businesses have alarmed consumers and privacy advocates.

Japanese consumer electronics giant Sony has faced fierce criticism after a hacker stole the personal data of more than 70m users of its PlayStation Network.

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