Google Street View criminal case facing decision time in Germany

Prosecutors in Hamburg will decide in the next two weeks whether to press charges against Google over the collection of payload data by its Street View cars.

Despite reports to the contrary, German prosecutors have not dropped a criminal case against Google over the collection of Wi-Fi data by its Street View cars.

Google Street View car
Google Street View car

Google Street View has been in the target of the prosecutors after it emerged in 2010 that its Street View cars had collected Wi-Fi data while they were out gathering photography for the mapping service. The cars not only tracked the location of wireless access points, but also recorded payload data from networks where users hadn't set up a password or encryption. According to German newspaper Die Zeit, Google collected up to 600GB of Wi-Fi data in the course of its Street View expeditions.

 A spokesperson told ZDNet that although the Hamburg prosecutor's office has finished gathering evidence in relation to the case, there has not yet been a final decision on whether or not to proceed with it. According to the spokesperson, the authorities will decide in the next two weeks if they are going to press charges. 


After the Wi-Fi issue came to light, Google initially said its Street View cars had only collected MAC addresses (a router's unique identifier) and SSID information (the name of a Wi-Fi network). However, when the Hamburg data protection commissioner asked to audit the information gathered by the Street View cars, it found that it had collected payload data too.

After the discovery, Google's senior VP for engineering and research Alan Eustace said the data collection was accidental, that an experimental piece of code was inadvertently included into the final version of the software used by the Street View cars.

"Quite simply, it was a mistake. In 2006 an engineer working on an experimental Wi-Fi project wrote a piece of code that sampled all categories of publicly broadcast Wi-Fi data. A year later, when our mobile team started a project to collect basic Wi-Fi network data like SSID information and MAC addresses using Google's Street View cars, they included that code in their software—although the project leaders did not want, and had no intention of using, payload data," Eustace said in a blog post in 2010.

Insufficient tests

Google's explanation drew the ire of Peter Schaar, Germany's federal commissioner for data protection.

"The [Street View cars'] software was used without previous, sufficient tests. Billions of datasets were collected unintentionally without anyone of the company noticing this, not even Google's in-house data protection officers who... defended the company's practices. It was not until the Hamburg data protection commissioner was not satisfied with the company’s explanations and wanted to see the code and the data that the mishap became apparent to the company," he wrote on his blog earlier this year .

While the prosecutors are keeping quiet on whether they will proceed with the case, other German legislation may work in Google's favour: under German law, every user must take precautions to secure their wireless network, or else they can be held liable for the infringements of anyone using the network , even if they do so without knowledge or approval of the network owner.