Google’s Korea Office Raided

Police raided Google Inc.’s South Korean offices Tuesday to probe potential violations of the country’s telecommunication-privacy law, in the latest move by authorities around the world to ratchet up scrutiny of the Internet search giant’s privacy practices.

The National Police Agency said it is investigating whether the U.S. company collected and stored private information illegally while it prepared for the South Korean launch of its Street View mapping service, which provides panoramic views of streets for Internet search users.

The agency said Google collected information on unspecified users from Wi-Fi wireless network for about six months until May while sweeping through the streets in special vehicles used to assemble street photos for the service.

“We began the probe after having confirmed that the company seized and kept open data as well as unauthorized private communication data collected by its special data-collecting vehicles,” the police said in a statement. Open data refers to data such as businesses’ street addresses that can be kept and stored legally under Korean law.

“We can confirm that the police have visited Google Korea in conjunction with their investigation around data collection by Street View cars. We will cooperate with the investigation and answer any questions they have,” said Lois Kim, a Google spokeswoman.

The raid doesn’t necessarily mean the Internet search giant will face charges. Such raids are common in South Korea as part of initial investigations that often fail to go much further.

Still, the raid will likely keep a spotlight on Street View.

A number of U.S. states have joined in on an investigation of whether privacy laws were broken when Google’s Street View vehicles collected personal data of unsuspecting Internet users. Authorities in the Italy, Spain, Germany and Australia are investigating the service.

Also Tuesday, Google said it plans to introduce its Street View feature for 20 of Germany’s largest cities, including Berlin, Munich and Frankfurt, before the end of the year.

At the insistence of authorities, the faces of individuals and licenses plates will be blurred. People can also ask to have images of their homes removed from the database starting next week, a move aimed at dispelling privacy fears, the Associated Press reported.

“This tool available before the launch of the service is unique to Germany,” Google spokeswoman Lena Wagner said Tuesday, according to the AP.

Google said in May that the roving vehicles it uses to create its Street View program had for years inadvertently collected data over public, unsecured Wi-Fi networks. Google has said the collection was a “mistake” but that the company “did nothing illegal.”

Google has a weak presence in the South Korean market, where local search portal sites such as NHN’s Naver, Daum Communications and others enjoy a comfortable dominance near 90% of the market.

Privacy concerns have been also emerged around Daum’s Road View, which is similar to the Street View and started January 2009. The company has taken several steps to protect privacy such as blurring people’s faces on photos.