The scandal over Google's collection of private data via its controversial Street View application is now occupying Germany's justice system. The public prosecutors office in Hamburg, where Google has its German headquarters, is investigating the company in the light of its admission that it accidentally collected personal information sent over wireless networks.
The move came after a lawyer in Aachen filed a complaint with the office, although it is not yet clear if there will be an indictment. "We are at such an early stage of the case that we first have to ensure that there are grounds for suspicion," Hamburg's chief prosecutor, Wilhelm Möllers, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
His office will now determine if Google may have broken paragraph 202b of Germany's penal code, which deals with the unauthorized capture of private data using technical means. Google photographed streets in Germany for its controversial Street View online service using 360-degree cameras mounted on top of cars. It has since emerged that the vehicles were also capturing snippets of people's private online activities on unencrypted wireless networks.
New Legislation on Data Capture
Google admitted the privacy breach on Friday, saying that the actions had been inadvertent. Google spokesman Kay Oberbeck said that this had been "a mistake and we are profoundly sorry." Oberbeck said that the collection of the data had come to light after data protection officials in Germany had asked the company what information it was collecting from wireless networks.
The company may have run foul of a law on the capture of private data which was introduced in 2007 as part of new legalislation to fight computer crime. Spying on information in private exchanges of data or the "electromagnetic radiation" of computer networks can be punished by a fine or a prison term of one to two years.
Johannes Caspar, Hamburg's data protection commissioner, has given Google until May 26 to hand over the hard drives that contain the captured data. If Google were to refuse, it could face a fine of up to €300,000 ($369,000). The company promised at the weekend that it would cooperate fully with the authorities and said that it wanted Caspar to be able to examine the data as quickly as possible.
Germany's Consumer Affairs Minister Ilse Aigner has also demanded that Google issue a detailed explanation and that it reveal the technology used by the Street View vehicles. "We want to know exactly which instruments are used for what," a ministry spokesperson said on Tuesday.