Google’s privacy woes continue.
Just a week after we reported that it had been named along with Microsoft (MSFT) and Yahoo (YHOO) in a data-sharing probe by the European Union comes news that Google (GOOG) has been issued a restraining order by an Oregon judge over its handling of sensitive personal information that it may have unlawfully collected.
The order, issued by Oregon District Court Judge Michael Mosman, requires Google to halt the destruction of any data it collected as part of its Street View mapping work, and turn over copies of all the information to the court. It is believed that some of the data in question may include individual’s emails, files and phone records.
The Street View work entailed the company dispersing all types of vehicles to photograph streets, houses, pedestrian walkways and other landmarks that users would be able to view within the popular Google Maps feature.
However, in a lawsuit filed on behalf of individuals in Oregon and Washington, Vicki Van Valin and Neil Mertz assert that the Google convoys were also actively scanning for wireless networks and potentially collected private data from homes using unsecured Wi-Fi networks as a result of those scans.
Why, you ask, would Google do such a thing?
Well according to Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the neighborhood Street View work is not so much about geographical maps as it is about creating maps of Wi-Fi hot spots that could give Google a strategic advantage over its competitors down the line.
“There’s been a lot of privacy discussion around Street View, but most of it was around the collection of images,” he says. “The much bigger story will be that Google was mapping the wireless Internet…but it wasn’t telling anyone it was doing that.”
Though this particular case is unfolding within the United States, this is not the first time Google’s Street View work has potentially skirted privacy regulations. German authorities earlier this year requested an audit of data collected in that country by Google during the same process, also compiled from wireless networks without any password protection. (The company, to date, has not yet complied with German officials’ demand for a hard drive containing information collected by Street View teams.)
Google has gone on record in a blog posting last month admitting that it may have mistakenly collected the Wi-Fi data, and responded to the Oregon filing by arguing that it is unnecessary because the company had already taken measures to secure the information.
But that may not be enough to curb the scrutiny of the U.S. government—U.S. Federal Trade Commission chairman Jon Leibowitz has pledged to take a “very, very close look” at the manner in which Google collects data.
Google’s stock has already dipped more than 20 percent thus far in 2010 and the unfolding drama surrounding Street View and potential Wi-Fi mapping may continue to push shares down even further as news continues to emerge. We’ll keep tabs on this story and fill you in when we learn more but at the very least, this should once again reinforce the idea that you should be using secure, password-protected wireless networks at home.
After all, you never know who might be snooping around your neighborhood.