Google Stops Deleting WiFi Spy Data as U.S. Eyes Probe

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Last week, prominent privacy experts urged Google not to delete personal WiFi data the company says it mistakenly collected as its "Street View" cars crawled major cities worldwide taking photos for Google Maps.

On Saturday, Google (GOOG) did just that, ceasing its deletion efforts as international scrutiny over the case continued to build. "Given that there is some uncertainty about deletion generally," Google told DailyFinance, "we think it makes sense to keep the remaining country data while we work through these issues."

Privacy experts and officials have expressed concern that Google might be destroying data that could be used as evidence in any legal proceeding. Governments worldwide are looking into the breach, which Google says was a mistake.

"Google should not be permitted to delete evidence of what may turn out to be criminal conduct," says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "If they went forward as they planned, they might have also faced obstruction-of-justice charges."

The FTC Is Taking "Very Close Look"

On Wednesday, Google co-founder Sergey Brin addressed the matter, saying "We screwed up, and I'm not making excuses about it." Google said it had intended to collect anonymous WiFi information to improve its map and location products, but mistakenly collected much more, including snippets of user browsing activity.

Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz told lawmakers Thursday that the agency would look into the matter. "We're going to take a very close look at this," Leibowitz said, though he declined to confirm whether a formal investigation was underway.

Google's move to stop the data deletion came after confusion amid conflicting directives from governments. Data protection authorities in Ireland, Denmark and Austria had asked Google to destroy the data, according to the Financial Times, while other countries, including Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland and Spain, had asked for Google to retain the data for potential inqueries.

"We Think It Makes Sense"

On Thursday, Alexander Alvaro, a German lawmaker, asked the European Commission to investigate, saying that "Member State rules implementing the Data Protection Directive and the e-Privacy Directive are likely to have been infringed."

Meanwhile, two Oregon residents have filed a class-action lawsuit against Google over the WiFi data collection, saying the company violated their privacy.

In a statement, Google said: "Given that there is some uncertainty about deletion generally, for example one DPA [data protection authority] changed its instruction from delete to retain in the last 24 hours, we think it makes sense to keep the remaining country data while we work through these issues."

Privacy experts agreed that Google shouldn't destroy the information.

"Google needs to preserve the data until the legal questions around its surreptitious collection of WiFi data are resolved," says Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center For Digital Democracy. "There is a legitimate concern by some EU privacy officials that the data Google collected should be examined, in order to ascertain whether Google is telling the truth (about how it collected the data). Google shouldn't prematurely pull the data-destruction trigger while the debate continues on its use of WiFi data."