Italy opens investigation into Google data gathering

Google apologized for the Street View data breach, which is at the heart of the latest probe

Italian prosecutors have opened an investigation into Google for allegedly violating the country's privacy laws through the data collected for the Internet company's Street View service, newspapers reported Thursday.

The investigation, being handled by Rome public prosecutor Eugenio Albamonte, was opened at the request of the national Privacy Authority and on the basis of information provided by Google.

Google spokesman Marco Pancini apologized for the privacy breach Wednesday. "The accidental collection of Wi-Fi data by Street View cars was an error for which we are deeply sorry and for which we apologize. We reiterate our willingness to collaborate with the authorities," Pancini said in a statement.

Privacy Authority Chairman Francesco Pizzetti confirmed that the request for the investigation came from his office. "The problem does not so much concern the images taken by the cars as the fact that Google has also captured signals transmitted by wireless networks, including fragments of communications," Pizzetti told the ANSA news agency. It was illegal to intercept data transmissions without authorization, he said.

Google owned up to the privacy breach in a blog posting on its website a week ago. "In May we announced that we had mistakenly collected unencrypted Wi-Fi payload data using our Street View cars. We work hard at Google to earn your trust, and we're acutely aware that we failed badly here," Alan Eustace, senior vice president for engineering and research, admitted in the posting.

Examination of the data revealed that "while most of the data is fragmentary, in some instances entire emails and URLs were captured, as well as passwords," Eustace wrote.

Eustace said the company wanted to delete the data as soon as possible and pledged to improve its internal privacy and security practices.

In an article for an Italian online magazine, legal expert Fulvio Sarzana di S. Ippolito argued that the magistrates should really be investigating illegal interception of communications rather than "illicit interference in private life," as is currently the case. The choice of which possible offense to investigate could have a bearing on how voluntary Google's conduct was deemed to be and influence the outcome of a possible trial, he said.

Earlier this week the Privacy Authority issued detailed instructions on how Google was required to publicize the activities of its Street View cars, taking the lead on the issue in Europe thus far.

The cars' visits were to be announced at least three days in advance, with advertisements in two local newspapers, on the radio and on Google's website. The cars must also be clearly identified, so that citizens can avoid being filmed, the Authority said. Failure to comply could lead to fines of up to €180,000 (US$250,000).

Writing on the La Repubblica.it website, blogger Vittorio Zambardino said Google should be given credit for owning up to the privacy breach.

"The case that is opening in Rome risks introducing a conflict between innovation and the pre-existing culture, between the judiciary and the technology industry, which leads judges to deal with 'borderline issues' and where it is difficult to establish the frontier between sensible laws and interference in technological development," Zambardino wrote. "Given that no one can dispute the beauty and utility of the Street View service."

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