Collection of Private Wi-Fi Data Just Google's Latest German Gaffe

Google has had a rough time in Germany, where they don't even own the rights to "Gmail"

3 min read

Germany hasn’t been an easy market for Google. In fact, maybe only China has proven to be a bigger challenge for the owner of the world’s largest search engine.

Google’s latest snag in Germany: collecting private data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks.

As in other markets, the company uses a fleet of vehicles to take pictures for its Street View photo archive. The vehicles take snapshots of street views, which are later integrated into Google Maps.

The data protection supervisor for the city-state of Hamburg, Johannes Caspar, accused Google of sniffing some network data, like the Service Set Identifier (SSID) and the Media Access Control (MAC) addresses, to help the company keep a better fix on locations for its Web products.

Google first denied that it was sniffing private data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks. Then, oops, the company realized it was – ouch.

In a blog, the company said, bluntly, that it had made 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.”

OK, big companies make mistakes. But Germany isn’t a market where Google can afford to make many, especially in the area of data privacy. Modern Germany is tough on data privacy – and technology that can undermine it – ever since World War II when, among other things, punch-card data processing systems allowed Nazis to categorize and track concentration camp victims.

Many Germans were upset about Google’s plans to introduce Street Views in the first place. Last year, German officials demanded that the company delete tons of retained snapshots, citing that people’s privacy was being violated under German law.

The issue went all the way up to Chancellor Angela Merkel who announced in February that Germany wouldn’t hamper the release of Street View in Germany. In a podcast later that month, she anyone in the country who considers the service “to be an invasion of their private sphere can make use of the right to object."

The Consumer Affairs Ministry has drawn up a template letter - available for download from its website - for this purpose. The internet giant has agreed to blur license plates and faces of individuals who do not want to have their photos appear online.

Street View, which offers panoramas of thousands of streets on the Internet, already covers large areas of the U.S. and the U.K. It seamlessly stitches together photos taken by camera cars, which capture 360-degree images. Google has been gathering images of streets and public spaces in Germany since 2008.

Sort of related but not entirely, a German court surprised – and excited – numerous data protection advocates in the country with a decision on wireless connections. A few days before the Street View sniffing incident gained public attention, the court ruled that private users are obligated to ensure that their wireless connections are adequately secured against the danger of unauthorized third-parties abusing it.

But long before Street View, another hot issue in Germany was Gmail. The burning point wasn’t the service itself – Germans are big fans – but rather its name. In more than 60 countries around the world, Google calls its email service Gmail: Germany isn’t one of them.

A German court ruled in 2007 and, after some tough fights, again in 2008 that entrepreneur Daniel Giersch holds the "Gmail" trademark in the country. The decision ended Google's long legal battle for the name. Google launched its Gmail service around 2004; Giersch has been using the Gmail name in Germany since 2000.

How long Giersch holds out to Google is anyone’s guess. This month, the Independent International Investment Research (IIR Group), owner of the Gmail name in the U.K., agreed to sell the name and settle a long-running trademark dispute. IIR Group initially sought $500,000 per year, in addition to a slice of the advertising pie, in exchange for standing aside. Both companies are mum on the terms of the settlement. Probably a good idea, considering that Giersch and whoever else in the world owns the Gmail trademark have to be interested in Google’s net worth.

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