Google Relents, Will Hand Over European Wi-Fi Data

In a reversal of course, Google now says that it will give European regulators data it secretly collected from open wireless networks over the past three years.

A Google spokesman said Thursday that the data should be handed over within a matter of days. Last week, the company found itself in conflict with a privacy regulator at the German city of Hamburg, who wanted access to the data. Google said that it wasn't sure that handing over the data would be legal.

"The data protection authority in Hamburg has made a number of requests -- including to be given access to an original hard-drive containing the payload data, and to a Street View car. We want to cooperate with these requests -- indeed we have already given him access to a car -- but as granting access to payload data creates legal challenges in Germany which we need to review, we are continuing to discuss the appropriate legal and logistical process for making the data available," Google said in a statement last week.

Those challenges have apparently now been addressed.

The company plans to hand over data to German, French and Spanish authorities, according to the Financial Times, (FT) which first reported this latest development on Thursday.

Google will publish a review of its privacy practices sometime within the next month, and also plans to publish the findings of an external audit into its Wi-Fi snooping operations, the FT reports. "We screwed up. Let's be very clear about that," Google CEO Eric Schmidt told the newspaper.

The search engine company has never completely explained how its Street View vehicles ended up recording all kinds of data sent over open wireless networks, including e-mail messages and data from Web pages. In a May 14 blog post, the company said that an engineer added the functionality to a 2006 beta version of its Street View software and that, somehow, it was never taken out when the product went live.

Google had been collecting some data about wireless networks to help improve its geo-location products, but, until May, it had denied that it was sniffing the sensitive "payload" data of these networks.

Since then, it's come under the scrutiny of U.S. and international regulators and been the target of at least six class action lawsuits.

Robert McMillan can be reached at robert_mcmillan@idg.com. He is on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/bobmcmillan.

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