The Seoul police raided Google’s office here Tuesday on suspicion that its mobile advertising unit, AdMob, had illegally collected users’ location data without users’ consent, the police said. The raid represents the latest setback to the U.S. Internet search company’s South Korean operations. The investigation also highlights growing concerns about possible misuse of private information as the popularity of mobile devices like smartphones and tablet computers increases.
Information on users’ locations is viewed as crucial for the growing mobile advertising sector, as it helps personalize online ads according to individual preferences or geographical positions. Last month, Apple defended its use of iPhone location data but denied that it was tracking the movements of customers. Google and Apple have been criticized by U.S. lawmakers over their protection and use of consumer data from cellphone applications, including where users are located. Google executives have talked about the ability to tailor advertising to users on the basis of location. Google bought AdMob, a leading global mobile advertising firm, last year for $750 million.
“Every technology has a flip side,” said Kim Kwang-jo, a computer science professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. “Location-based services benefit customers by helping them find nearby restaurants, gas stations and other places with their smartphones. But it could potentially violate consumer privacy. There are loopholes in location-based services, and companies should get consent from customers to collect location data.” Google confirmed that the police had visited its Seoul office and said the company was cooperating with the investigation. Jang Byung-duk, who is in charge of cybercrime investigation at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, said, “We suspect AdMob collected personal location information without consent or approval from the Korean Communication Commission.”