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Privacy Commissioner investigates Google WiFi data collection

OTTAWA, June 1, 2010 – The Privacy Commissioner of Canada has launched an investigation into online giant Google Inc.’s inadvertent collection of data from unsecured wireless networks as its cars were photographing streetscapes for its Street View map service.

“We are very concerned about the privacy implications stemming from Google’s confirmation that it had been capturing WiFi data in neighbourhoods across Canada and around the world over the past several years,” says Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart.

“We have a number of questions about how this collection could have happened and about the impact on people’s privacy.  We’ve determined that an investigation is the best way to find the answers.”

The Commissioner-initiated investigation will determine whether Google contravened Canada’s private-sector privacy law, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA).  The law empowers the Commissioner to launch an investigation in cases where she believes there are reasonable grounds to suspect there has been a contravention.

In a blog posting last month, Google confirmed it had been collecting and storing information broadcast via wireless networks that were not password protected and issued a public apology.  The company also notified the Privacy Commissioner’s Office about the breach.

Previously, in response to questions from European regulators, Google had said that, while its Street View camera cars were collecting information to identify WiFi networks, they were not collecting additional information that users were sending over unprotected networks. 

Further checking by the company showed this was incorrect.  Google did collect “payload data,” which refers to the content of communications.  It’s possible that this would contain personal information, including the content of e-mail communications.

The company had planned to use WiFi network data to add features to its location-based services.  After the mistake was discovered, the company announced it has stopped its Street View cars from collecting any more WiFi network data.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has already asked Google to retain the data it collected in Canada.  It may be necessary to examine it as part of the investigation in order to understand exactly what happened.

“Rapidly growing location-based online services are raising new risks for privacy, as this latest incident involving Google shows,” says Assistant Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham.

“We expect our investigation will promote better handling of personal information among other organizations involved in the collection of WiFi data for the purpose of facilitating the delivery of location-based services.”

The Privacy Commissioner of Canada is mandated by Parliament to act as an ombudsman, advocate and guardian of privacy and the protection of personal information rights of Canadians.

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For more information, contact:

Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada
Anne-Marie Hayden
Tel: (613) 995-0103 

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