Police are investigating allegations that computer giant Google illegally gathered personal email and wireless internet data during its "Street View" operation in New Zealand.
Police spokesman Grant Ogilvie confirmed last night that the Office of the Privacy Commissioner had asked the force to investigate. This would be done by the Wellington-based National Cyber Crime Centre.
"At the moment we are just confirming that we have received a complaint from the Privacy Commissioner ... The first step will be to assess the complaint before we make any decisions on whether to proceed from there [with charges].
"We can't speculate on what they [Google] might be charged with until we look at what they are doing."
Representatives of the police and the Privacy Commissioner met yesterday to discuss Google's possible breach of the Crimes Act after concerns were expressed about reports it had collected WiFi information while photographing houses and streets with 3D cameras for Street View, its online mapping service.
Google has acknowledged it collected fragments of data over public WiFi networks in more than 30 countries, though it is not known what kind of information was involved. The firm has "locked down" details while the matter is being investigated.
The privacy scandal has sparked fears that Google may have intercepted personal banking details and could link people's internet behaviour to home addresses.
The internet giant has characterised its collection of snippets from emails and web surfing done on public WiFi networks as an error.
Google said it discovered the problem after German regulators started an inquiry. Australia has also launched a police investigation.
The New Zealand police investigation comes as more regulators and consumer watchdogs are complaining that Google doesn't take people's privacy seriously enough.
Google maintains that its users' privacy is one of the company's highest priorities.
In a statement last night, an Assistant Privacy Commissioner, Katrine Evans, said that following yesterday's meeting, the office and the police had agreed the matter would now be formally referred to the force, "so that they can consider whether Google has committed a criminal offence by collecting payload data from WiFi networks during its Street View filming".
Kathryn Dalziel, a privacy specialist at the Christchurch law firm Taylor Shaw, said it would be a breach of the Crimes Act if Google was found to have intercepted any communication.
"This will create an interesting issue in terms of international law, since the company is based outside of New Zealand," said Ms Dalziel, a former member of the Privacy Commissioner's staff.
A Google New Zealand spokesman said the company was "profoundly sorry" for the mistake. He said the collection of data would have been limited by the fact that the camera-mounted Google cars used to film streets and houses for Street View "were on the move".
Internet users would have needed to be using their network as a car passed their house.
"Our in-car WiFi equipment automatically changes channels five times a second," he said.
"That said, it's possible that the fragments of data we collected could contain entire emails or other content if a user broadcast personal information over an open network at that moment."
The spokesman said the equipment used was bought from a third party and though the software would have recognised encrypted transmissions, that particular data would have been discarded immediately. Encrypted data could include details such as online banking and other secure files.
This is not the first time Google has featured in privacy concerns.
In April, a group of international privacy regulators - including in New Zealand - wrote to the company expressing concerns about its combining its private email service, Gmail, with a social networking service called Buzz.
Concerns over Google's Street View project include that people could be filmed doing things they didn't want others to know about.
WORLD IN A CLICK
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A play on googol, the mathematical term for a 1 followed by 100 zeroes
1998 by Stanford University PhD students Larry Page and Sergey Brin
NZ$34.5 billion in 2009
- additional reporting by NZPA