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UK data watchdog to quiz Google on Streetview Wi-Fi database

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Sharp criticism of Google in Germany has today prompted the UK's privacy watchdog to quiz the firm over data its Street View cars have collected about Wi-Fi networks.

Officials from the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) will seek details and assurances about the practice.

A spokeswoman told The Register the ICO had been unaware the Street View fleet has been recording the MAC addresses and locations of Wi-Fi networks as they photograph national road netwoks - until its German counterpart launched an attack last week.

Peter Schaar, Germany's Federal Commissioner for Data Protection, was quoted as saying he was "horrified" by the data gathering exercise and demanding the Wi-Fi database be deleted.

The ICO spokeswoman said British regulators are interested in how the data is being processed and used by Google. If the firm were collecting data on the security settings of Wi-Fi routers, she said, it would be asked to give assurances about what it might do with that information.

"If it's just to tell you there's a cafe nearby - fine," she added.

In Germany, concerns have centred on claims that a national database of Wi-Fi MAC addresses or network names could prove a boon to authorities tracking online activity. Similarly, easy look-up of encryption standards on Wi-Fi routers might be useful to investigators, or criminals.

In an apparent response that did not directly reference the German criticism, on Friday Google emphasised the ability of smartphones to use Wi-Fi signals to calculate a more accurate location than by cell tower triangulation alone.

"This can be done without any intrusion into the privacy of a Wi-Fi network," it said.

"We only use information that is publicly broadcast. It doesn't involve accessing the network to send or receive data."

The firm also pointed out that other Wi-Fi location systems have been developed in recent years by Skyhook and Intel. Privacy advocates argue that those firms do not have the vast mines of personal data for ready cross-referencing that Google does.

The ICO said it will share the outcome of its discussions with Google. ®

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