Google Inc. is being investigated by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada for allegedly improperly collecting e-mail addresses and other personal data when the company's employees took photos and mapped wireless hot spots across Canada as part of its Street View mapping feature.
In a statement released Tuesday, Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart said although the data were collected inadvertently by Google, the investigation was launched to determine whether the Mountain View, Calif.-based company contravened Canada's privacy laws. The Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) restricts companies from using or revealing personal data without the consent of individuals.
No similar laws exist in the United States, but civil lawsuits filed in the country allege that Street View cars improperly gathered parts or all of any digital communications that were being transmitted while the vehicles were in the area. These could include e-mails, documents, photos and videos.
"We have a number of questions about how this collection could have happened and about the impact on people's privacy. We've determined that an investigation is the best way to find the answers," Ms. Stoddart said.
In a blog posting last month, Google confirmed it collected and stored data broadcast via wireless networks that were not password protected and issued a public apology. The company also notified the Privacy Commissioner's Office about the breach.
The posting followed complaints from European regulators that Google Street View workers had culled information transmitted over unprotected WiFi networks.
Initially, Google denied the allegations, but recently it confirmed that it collected "payload data," which refers to the content of e-mail communications.
The revelation has prompted probes from a handful of European privacy regulators and inquires from some U.S. politicians. In response to news of the Canadian investigation a Google representative said: "We're working with the relevant authorities to answer their questions and concerns."
The company had planned to use WiFi network data to add features to its location-based services. After the mistake was discovered, the company announced it has stopped its Street View cars from collecting any more WiFi network data.
Canada's Privacy Commissioner Canada previously asked Google to retain the data it collected in Canada when it brought its Street View cars to Canada in 2008. The regulator said it may be necessary to examine the data to understand what happened.
"Rapidly growing location-based online services are raising new risks for privacy, as this latest incident involving Google shows," said Assistant Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham.
"We expect our investigation will promote better handling of personal information among other organizations involved in the collection of WiFi data for the purpose of facilitating the delivery of location-based services."