Madrid -- Spain has become the latest country to penalize search engine giant Google over alleged privacy violations made during mapping for its "Street View" feature. A judge in Spain initiated an investigation over complains whether Google unlawfully gathered data from unsecured wireless networks while gathering photographs for its photo-mapping service Street View, the association that filed the suit said Monday.
Judge Raquel Fernandino summoned a legal representative from Google in Spain to appear before her in October over the lawsuit filed by a Spanish association promoting the rights of Internet users, APEDANICA. The summons was issued last month, but made public only this week.
Spain has become the latest victim of mistakenly collected Wi-Fi data by Google's Street View mapping cars. A Google councilor will appear before a judge in Madrid, Raquel Fernandino, on 4 October as part of an investigation into whether the company committed a "computer crime" while taking shots of the city streets in Spain.
A Google Street View car in action -- this one in the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Photograph: Toussaint Kluiters/EPA
The complaint lodged by the Spanish association of Internet users, whose acronym is APEDANICA, alleges that Google violated an article in Spain's criminal code that forbids the unauthorized interception and collection of such communications data. Breaching that law can lead to prison sentences of up to four years.
Google's Street View service launched in more than 30 countries provides Internet users with street-level imagery of public buildings and private residences around the world. But it has sparked concerns over the possible of erosion of privacy.
Street View has also caused regulatory and legal annoyance for Google in other European countries with strict privacy laws, including Germany and Switzerland, where opponents of the Street View photo archive have been particularly outspoken.
Google has acknowledged the collection of the data in various towns and cities in 34 countries around the world as accidental and has apologized for what it called a programming error in its picture-taking vehicles that grabbed data from wireless Internet systems not secured by passwords. The company has deeply regretted the incident, but authorities in more than a dozen countries are investigating whether the company broke privacy laws.
In May this year, Alan Eustace, a senior vice president in engineering and research at the Mountain View company, said Street View cars had been "erroneously collecting samples of payload data from open Wi-Fi networks, even though we never used that data in any Google products".
Google then explained that a string of code in the production systems of Street View cars enabled Google to retrieve and store information about the networks' location, names and Media Access Control (MAC) addresses on wireless networks that were not password-protected.
In June, Artemi Rallo, director of the official Spanish data protection agency, Agencia Española de Protección de Datos, stated in an interview that Google should surrender the original hard drives containing the actual Wi-Fi payload data -- including e-mail text fragments and unencrypted passwords.
The company has already consented to wipe-out the data collected in Ireland, Denmark and Austria at the request of officials in those countries.
The judge's investigation is the most serious threat to date in Spain for Google and its mapping service. Judge Fernandino has asked Spanish police to provide her with information on "the devices used for the capturing of data" as well as the destination of such data and the number of users affected.
The head of Google Spain, Marisa Toro, told Spanish daily newpaper El Mundo that the company is cooperating "in all countries with institutions and judicial authorities to answer any questions they have". "Our ultimate goal is to remove the data in accordance with our legal obligations and in consultation with the relevant authorities."
Valentín Playá, the attorney representing the Spanish association that filed the complaint against Google, said on Tuesday that "recognizing the mistake and the excuses presented by Google are not reasons to prevent the investigation, nor a criminal condemnation, if it is judged that the actions amounted to a crime and that there has been a degree of responsibility from Google."
"We are devoting a lot of our time to seeking a solution so that users can be at ease," Ms. Toro said.
A judge in Hamburg opened a criminal investigation of Google over its collection of data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks in Germany. And the UK is one of many countries where the Wi-Fi data -- amounting to 600MB -- is being investigated.
Google also is facing investigations or inquiries over similar practice, which it says it has discontinued, in the United States, Germany and Australia.
Over the weekend police officers in South Korea search Google's Seoul headquarters, captured computers and hard drives, as the country's authorities investigate the data collected by Street View cars.