Google broke Canada’s privacy law

Posted: October 20, 2010 in Uncategorized

Google broke Canada’s privacy law

A Google street view car is displayed at the Google Inc. headquarters in Mountain View, California.

Tony Avelar/Bloomberg

A Google street view car is displayed at the Google Inc. headquarters in Mountain View, California.

Jameson Berkow, Financial Post · Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2010

Google Inc. violated Canadian privacy law by collecting personal information from unsecured wireless networks across the country for its Street View service, Canada’s Privacy Commissioner said Tuesday.

“Our investigation shows that Google did capture personal information — and, in some cases, highly sensitive personal information such as complete emails,” said Jennifer Stoddart, Privacy Commissioner of Canada, in a statement. “This incident was a serious violation of Canadians’ privacy rights,” she said.

Noting that thousands of Canadians were likely affected, Ms. Stoddart said personal information collected by Google’s iconic Street View cars included complete emails, email addresses, user names and passwords, names and residential telephone numbers and addresses. Some particularly sensitive information was also captured, such as a list of people suffering from certain medical conditions complete with their full names and contact information.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner began looking into Google’s data collection methods in early June after several other countries as well as several U.S. states launched similar investigations. Canada’s investigation concluded the incident was a result of a Google engineer’s “careless error” in addition to a lack of controls to ensure necessary measures to protect individual privacy were followed.

“The impact of new and rapidly evolving technologies on modern life is undeniably exciting,” said Ms. Stoddart. “However, the consequences for people can be grave if the potential privacy implications aren’t properly considered at the development stage of these new technologies,” she said.

In an April 27 post on the company’s official blog, Google admitted to collecting unsecured information such as network names and unique ID numbers given to devices such as DSL routers, and issued a public apology for the oversight. On May 14, the tech giant discovered it had also been inadvertently collecting “payload data,” which refers to content of specific communications, like the text of emails sent via unsecured WiFi. The purpose in collecting the WiFi data was for use in Street View’s various location-based services, including finding nearby restaurants.

Immediately after recognizing the problem, Google stopped its Street View cars from collecting data and informed the proper authorities, including the privacy commissioner’s office in Ottawa, about what happened. According to Google’s May 14 blog entry, the collection of payload data was entirely unintentional.

Ms. Stoddart sent technical experts to Google’s Mountain View, California headquarters over the summer to personally examine the Street View data collected in Canada.

“This incident was the result of a careless error – one that could easily be avoided,” Ms. Stoddart said.

She has given the world’s largest search engine a deadline of February 1, 2011 to delete all offending Canadian data, at which point her office will consider the matter resolved.

“As we have said before, we are profoundly sorry for having mistakenly collected payload data from unencrypted networks. As soon as we realised what had happened, we stopped collecting all WiFi data from our Street View cars and immediately informed the authorities. We have been working with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner in its investigation and will continue to answer the commissioner’s questions and concerns,” a spokesperson from Google Canada said.

Financial Post

jberkow@nationalpost.com

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