Google, Asia mum about Street View fate

While services have resumed this week in four countries, Google and authorities in Hong Kong and Singapore remain vague about Street View operations in the markets.

Even as Street View operations get kick-started this week in four countries in the European and African continents, Google and authorities in Asia are keeping mum on the fate of the street-level imagery feature in the region.

Google grounded its fleet of Street View vehicles globally in May following the realization that it had inadvertently included code in its software that collected Wi-Fi payload data from unsecured wireless access points as the vehicles made their rounds.

The payload data collected refers to the actual data transmitted over the network, such as e-mail content and passwords. The revelation caused an uproar in a number of countries, including Canada, Germany and the United States.

Brian McClendon, vice president of engineering for Google Geo, said in a Jul. 9 blog post that Street View activities will resume this week in Ireland, Norway, South Africa and Sweden following discussions with the respective regulators. The company, he noted, has removed Wi-Fi data collection equipment from its vehicles in each country.

The Street View feature makes use of tailored cameras and equipment in cars and trikes to capture and match images to a specific location using GPS (global positioning system) devices. The images are then "sewn" together to create a 360-degree panorama for Google Maps.

HK, S'pore still reviewing data
When queried on when Street View activities in Asia would resume, a Google representative said in an e-mail: "We don't have any timeline to announce at this time beyond the countries we have recently confirmed."

A spokesperson from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data (PCPD) in Hong Kong noted in an e-mail that the PCPD "is still considering" information relating to the case. "The Commissioner will keep the public posted on any updated progress," she added.

According to her, Commissioner Roderick B. Woo met with Google's Asia-Pacific head of government affairs, Ross LaJeunesse, in May. The meeting resulted in the signing of an undertaking by Google last month, in which it agreed to a number of conditions. This included the suspension of the Street View vehicles until it could be verified that the operation does not collect personal data; the submission of the Wi-Fi payload data collected in Hong Kong to the Commissioner; and rendering of assistance to interpret the data.

In a statement released Jun. 8 by the Office, the Commissioner was said to have requested from Google a copy of an analysis by an independent expert who had reviewed the source code involved in the payload data collection. According to the statement, the Commissioner would review "the analysis and other relevant materials before deciding the way forward".

Stroze Friedberg, the third-party security expert appointed by Google and its legal firm, released a report on the findings last month. The report confirmed that Google had code which, in addition to recording wireless hotspot information, saved payload data onto a hard drive.

Street View was launched in Hong Kong and Macau in March 2010.

Over in Singapore, where Street View was rolled out in December 2009, the government last month confirmed it was also in discussions with Google over the collection of data. However, a spokesperson from the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) announced this week that there were "no updates" on the issue.

"IDA has contacted Google to seek information and clarification on the Wi-Fi data collection matter and has no updates at this point in time," she said in an e-mail. "IDA is also currently working with the relevant authorities to review the available information.

"In the meantime, Google has assured IDA that it has ceased such data collection and that it has segregated the collected Wi-Fi data from its network and made it inaccessible."

Within the region, besides Hong Kong and Singapore, Street View has also been launched in Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan. Street View is available in over 30 countries globally.

Aust police investigation pending
Australia has been one of the harshest critics of Google's Street View misstep. Last week, Australian Privacy Commissioner Karen Curtis said her investigation into Google's collection of unsecured Wi-Fi payload data in the country concluded that the company had breached the Australian Privacy Act.

She added that the search giant had provided her with written undertakings which included the assurance that the company will consult the Commissioner's office about personal data collection activities tied to future product launches. The undertakings are valid for three years.

Google will not face punitive action as, under the Australian Privacy Act, there are no provisions to impose sanctions when an investigation is initiated by the Commissioner.

Separately, the Australian Attorney-General has referred the Google incident to the Australian Federal Police (AFP) for investigation. The AFP, however, said last week that it had yet to conduct a formal investigation into the matter.


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