Google has balked at requests from regulators to surrender Internet data and fragments of e-mail messages that it collected from unsecured home wireless networks, saying it needed time to resolve legal issues.
In Germany, Google said it was not able to fully comply with the Hamburg data protection supervisor’s deadline of Thursday to hand over data the company had collected — inadvertently, it said — while roving cars were compiling its Street View photo map archive.
The company implied that German privacy laws were preventing it from turning over the information, even to a government agency.
“As granting access to payload data creates legal challenges in Germany, which we need to review, we are continuing to discuss the appropriate legal and logistical process for making the data available,” Peter Barron, a Google spokesman in London, said in a statement. “We hope, given more time, to be able to resolve this difficult issue.”
The Hamburg data protection supervisor, Johannes Caspar, expressed his disappointment.
While prosecutors in Hamburg, where Google has its German headquarters, have opened a criminal investigation into the issue, Caspar said the state prosecutor, Lutz von Selle, had assured him that complying with the request to hand over the data would not cause additional legal problems for Google.
A refusal to comply with the privacy agency’s requests for information could result in a fine of up to 50,000 euros (US$61,000), though Caspar declined to say whether he would immediately push for such a sanction.
“We will have to show them our weapons, which are not very heavy in this case,” he said.
Caspar said Google had cooperated partly with his office, providing “relevant answers” about how its Street View driving operations had been organized, among other things. The company also agreed to show investigators the software that was used to gather the data.
“We will only believe what we see,” Caspar said.
Meanwhile, the privacy commissioner in Hong Kong, Roderick Woo (吳斌), threatened unspecified sanctions after Google did not respond to his request to inspect data collected in the territory by the roving cars. Woo said Google had ignored a deadline on Monday to turn over the information.
“I am dismayed by Google’s apparent lack of sincerity in its handling of this matter,” Woo said in a statement. “I do not see that Google is taking the matter seriously enough. Unless some remedial measures are taken by Google promptly, I shall have to consider escalating the situation and resort to more assertive action.”
A Google representative in Hong Kong could not be reached on Thursday for comment.
The company has said that its cars had collected 600 gigabytes of “fragmentary data” from unsecured Wi-Fi networks in 33 countries and Hong Kong.
It has declined to describe the data in more detail and says it was gathered inadvertently because of a programming error.
Although the fines and administrative sanctions in privacy cases tend to be limited, one privacy expert said Google’s lack of compliance with regulators’ requests could damage its reputation.
“Google’s refusal to hand over the data will be seen as a declaration of war by European regulators,” said Simon Davies, the director of Privacy International, a London organization representing data protection groups in 40 countries. “This is about sovereignty and a country’s right to determine on its citizens’ behalf what is right and what is wrong.”