Google cleared of privacy breach in UK, German inquiries continue | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 30.07.2010
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Google cleared of privacy breach in UK, German inquiries continue

British authorities said there is no evidence that Google has caused "individual detriment," but experts say this will have little influence on ongoing investigations in Germany

A car outfitted with Street View cameras

UK authorities said Google's inadvertant data collection hasn't caused any damage

Great Britain's data protection agency, the Information Commissioner's Office, cleared Google on Thursday of having collected "meaningful personal details" involved in the company’s Street View wireless Internet privacy breach.

"There is also no evidence as yet that the data captured by Google has caused or could cause any individual detriment," a spokesperson for the organization said in a statement.

In May, after investigations by German privacy officials, Google admitted to having inadvertently collected various bits of data, possibly including e-mails, documents and other information being passed through unsecured wireless Internet access points around the globe.

"We welcome the news that the data protection authorities in the UK have found that the payload data contained no meaningful personal information," a Google spokesperson said in a statement. "As we said when we announced our mistake, we did not want and have never used any payload data in our products or services."

The company had sent out its cars for its online mapping service, Google Street View, which provides a street-level perspective on streets in many countries around the world. The service is not yet operational in Germany due to privacy concerns, but is available around the world including countries like Spain, France, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The California company remains under investigation over the breach in the United States, Australia, Spain and Germany, among others.

"No direct impact" on German inquiry

Google Street View is currently available in France, the United Kingdom, the United States, among other countries -- but not Germany

Google Street View is not currently available in Germany

But IT and privacy experts said the British decision will likely have little influence on the ongoing German investigation.

"There is no direct impact," said Thomas Hoeren, a professor of media and telecommunications law at the University of Muenster in western Germany. "The British decision only has a kind of persuasive authority. However, the British supervision authorities are known to be far more liberal than the German authorities."

Ross Anderson, a professor of security engineering at the University of Cambridge, agreed, noting that the UK has taken an "extremely lax view of privacy enforcement" since its inception in the 1980s.

"The German response should be a laugh or a shrug," he told Deutsche Welle.

"I think Google is pretty smart," he added. "They know that Europe is the world's privacy regulator. America doesn't care, and nowhere else is big enough to matter. And they know that Germany makes the weather on privacy in Europe. That's why the Google privacy team is in Munich."

Ulrich Boerger, a privacy lawyer in Hamburg, said he found the British conclusion puzzling.

"That is a surprising to ask if [the data] could cause detriment," he said. "Under German law the mere fact that someone has my data is unlawful. What does that mean, 'no detriment?' No secrets? No intimate information discovered? I think that’s the wrong question to ask. One can never know what may lead to detriment."

Germans regard Google as "too powerful"

Google Street View provides high-level photographic detail

Google Street View provides high-level photographic detail

Further, Hoeren added that even if British authorities have given their blessing to Google, German government officials continue to still feel that they cannot fully trust Google.

"Google has a PR problem," he told Deutsche Welle. "Emotionally, people regard Google as being very big, too powerful, too un-transparent. Every small mistake or ambiguity of Google is immediately discussed in a very emotional way. But the main problem behind these strategies is the market power of Google and its control - for instance by antitrust law."

Despite proclaiming Google's potential for wrongdoing to be "unlikely" in the United Kingdom, British authorities still noted that other data protection agencies around the globe may still find wrongdoing.

"As we have only seen samples of the records collected in the UK," the ICO's statement said, "we recognize that other data protection authorities conducting a detailed analysis of all the payload data collected in their jurisdictions may nevertheless find samples of information which can be linked to identifiable individuals."

Author: Cyrus Farivar

Editor: Sean Sinico

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