Police confirmed Thursday that Google, the world's largest online search engine operator, illegally collected and stored personal data sent over unsecured Wi-Fi wireless networks here while creating the localized version of its online mapping service.
Korea and 15 other countries, including the U.S., Canada, Germany, France, Britain, and Australia, have been investigating whether Google broke their privacy laws in the process of making its "Street View" service. Korea has become the first to announce publicly that the California-based company gathered communication records, such as e-mail and instant messages, passwords and search histories. The Cyber Terror Response Center, affiliated with the National Police Agency, said it broke codes of computer hard drives confiscated from Google's Seoul office last August and found hundreds of thousands of e-mails, instant messages and other personal data. "We unlocked 79 computer hard disks seized from Google Korea last summer and discovered e-mails, instant messages and other private data sent over Wi-Fi networks. We are now working on an additional 145 hard drives, which were handed over to us later. These disks had previously been taken out of the country," said Jung Suk-hwa, leader of the investigation team at the Cyber Terror Response Center. On Aug. 10, the police raided Google Korea's office in southern Seoul and seized computer hard drives and company documents from the property during a search that lasted six hours. The search and seizure warrant was issued on suspicions that sensitive information may have been illegally collected by the Google's Street View cars, breaking the nation's privacy protection laws. Google first deployed its vehicles on Seoul's streets in October 2009, but the debut of the localized version of its online mapping service has been delayed indefinitely, with police investigating whether the company has broken local privacy laws. Jung said investigators summoned about 10 officials from Google Korea and its U.S. headquarters, including Google Korea CEO Lee Won-jin, for questioning over the past few months, adding they all stated that they were not aware of the allegations "Google Korea officials only said the Street View mapping project was orchestrated by the U.S. headquarters, arguing they were not involved in the scheme. Those summoned from the U.S. said they were not aware of the collection of personal data," he said. Jung then said it will decide what to do after the analysis of all computer hard drives is completed. When asked about whether the police will ask the prosecution to indict those working at the Google's U.S. headquarters if they were found to be responsible for the leakage of personal data, he declined to comment, citing a possible diplomatic problem. In response to the police announcement, Google Korea issued a short statement, saying it has been fully cooperating with law enforcement authorities. "We have not seen the report, but as we have said before, we are profoundly sorry for having mistakenly collected payload data from unencrypted networks. As soon as we realized what had happened, we stopped collecting all Wi-Fi data from our Street View cars and immediately informed the authorities," a Google Korea spokeswoman said. She said the company has been cooperating with the Korea Communications Commission and the police, and will continue to do so. "Our ultimate objective remains to delete the data consistent with our legal obligations and in consultation with the appropriate authorities," the spokeswoman said.