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Google apologises for WiFi data capture

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A Google street-view car, used to photograph whole streets, at the the CeBIT fair in Hanover, Germany, on March 3.
A Google street-view car, used to photograph whole streets, at the the CeBIT fair in Hanover, Germany, on March 3.

WASHINGTON: Google said on Friday that the cars used for its “Street View” mapping service had been mistakenly collecting personal data that people sent over unsecured WiFi networks for several years.

Google said it was “profoundly sorry for this error,” which is likely to intensify criticism of the Internet giant and Street View by privacy advocates and officials in a number of countries, particularly in Europe.

The Mountain View, California-based Google said it will end the collection of WiFi network information entirely by the Street View cars which have been used in over 30 nations.

It was also taking steps to delete the private data, which was scooped up as the cars drove around taking photographs and gathering publicly broadcast WiFi information for mobile versions of the online mapping service.

Street View, which is available for the United States and certain other countries, allows users to view panoramic street scenes on Google Maps and “walk” through cities such as New York, Paris or Hong Kong.

Amid concerns that thieves could use pictures of private houses to gain access and that photos of people were being published without their consent, Street View already blurs faces and car registration plates.

The collection of WiFi network information by Street View, which began in 2006, has been controversial, particularly in Germany.

Google had insisted previously it was only collecting WiFi network names and MAC addresses, the unique number given to a device like a WiFi router.

“It's now clear that we have been mistakenly collecting samples of payload data from open (non-password-protected) WiFi networks,” Alan Eustace, Google senior vice-president for engineering and research, said in a blog post.

Mr. Eustace said a coding error was responsible for the collection of personal data sent by people over unsecured WiFi networks.

Google did not specify what data was gathered but it could potentially include e-mails or details about which websites a person had visited.

Mr. Eustace said Google discovered that personal data had been swept up a week ago following a request to audit WiFi data from the Data Protection Authority in Hamburg, Germany.

Mr. Eustace said the data was just fragments. “Because our cars are on the move, someone would need to be using the network as a car passed by, and our in-car WiFi equipment automatically changes channels roughly five times a second,” he said.

“Maintaining people's trust is crucial to everything we do, and in this case we fell short,” he said.

Google said Street View cars have been collecting WiFi data in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Britain, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Macau, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan and the United States. — AFP


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