Google will not be prosecuted for Street View Wi-Fi sniffing in Germany

Scanning Wi-Fi networks in Germany is not a criminal offense, a prosecutor concluded

The public prosecutor in Hamburg has decided not to start a criminal investigation into the way Googles' Street View cars gathered data from unencrypted Wi-Fi networks in Germany, the lawyer who requested the inquiry said Thursday.

In 2010 Google acknowledged that its Street View cars collected data such as MAC addresses and SSIDs (service set identifiers) as well as personal payload data from Wi-Fi networks. Payload data can include email, passwords and medical data.

This prompted German lawyer Jens Ferner to request the public prosecutor in Hamburg to start a formal criminal investigation into the matter.

Two years and nine months later, Ferner received a reply to his request. The public prosecutor's office said it cannot pursue a criminal investigation into Google's Street View Wi-Fi sniffing. The prosecutor's office was unable to find any violation of criminal standards by Google in the way the company stores SSIDs, MAC addresses or payload data, it said in a letter sent to Ferner on Thursday.

Intercepting MAC addresses and SSIDs is not illegal because the information is not protected by German telecom law, the prosecutor said. The data does not have the same status as messages sent over the airwaves, according to the prosecutor.

While the payload information collected by Google does contain messages, the prosecutor was also unable to prosecute Google for the way it collected that information.

German criminal law protects data gathered without permission, said Ferner in an email. "It would be punishable by law if someone intercepts the data with intention," he said. But Google argued it did not realize it was gathering the payload data. Thus the data was collected without intention, and Google can go unpunished, Ferner said. MAC addresses and SSIDs are not seen as personal data by the prosecutor, he added.

Though the decision of a prosecutor is not a ruling by a court, Ferner noted that he thought this was an important decision nonetheless. The decision implies that simply scanning for networks is not a criminal offense in Germany, Ferner said.

Google did not immediately reply to a request for comment, but announced shortly after the Wi-Fi sniffing was discovered in 2010 that it had stopped collecting Wi-Fi data entirely.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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