Google Street View: No prosecution in Germany

Prosecutors in Hamburg have decided not to press charges against Google over the collection of Wi-Fi data by its Street View cars.
Written by Moritz Jaeger, Contributor

Good news for Google: after two years and nine months of investigation, prosecutors in the Germany city of Hamburg have decided to not to press charges against the company over Street View's Wi-Fi sniffing.

Image: Byrion/Flickr

The prosecutors set their sights on the search company after Google's Street View cars were found to have collected Wi-Fi data from networks they passed while gathering photography for the mapping service. The cars not only tracked the location of wireless access points at premises they passed, but also recorded payload data from networks where users hadn't set up a password or encryption. According to German newspaper Die Zeit, Google's cars collected up to 600GB of Wi-Fi data when out gathering images for Street View.

The prosecutors were still considering pressing criminal charges in relation to the Wi-Fi gathering as late as last month, but have now decided to drop the case after deciding that the information collected by Google was either in the public domain or not covered by criminal law.

After the Wi-Fi sniffing was first discovered, 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 data that the Street View cars had gathered, it found that payload data had also been collected.

Both the MAC address and SSID of a router are not covered by criminal law, according to the prosecutors.

No criminal intent

Data fragments collected by the Street View cars from the unsecured Wi-Fi networks however are more legally tricky, as they could contain personal data and so fall under the German federal data protection law.

The prosecutors, though, decided that these fragments were "publicly accessible" and therefore collecting them didn't constitute breaking the law. The prosecutors also said they found no criminal intent on Google's part and that the company had not bypassed any security measures to collect any of the Wi-Fi data.

After the Wi-Fi sniffing was discovered, Google's senior VP for engineering and research Alan Eustace said the data collection was accidental, and occurred after an experimental piece of code was inadvertently included in 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.

Image: Byrion

Editorial standards