Google grabs personal info off of Wi-Fi networks

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(AP) -- Google Inc. has been vacuuming up fragments of people's online activities broadcast over public Wi-Fi networks for the past four years, a breach of Web etiquette likely to raise more privacy worries about the Internet search leader.

Even Google was troubled by its behavior, and issued a public apology Friday. The company said it only recently discovered the problem in response to an inquiry from German regulators.

"Maintaining people's trust is crucial to everything we do, and in this case we fell short," Alan Eustace, Google's top engineering executive, wrote in a blog post.

Google characterized its collection of snippets from e-mails and Web surfing done on public Wi-Fi networks as a mistake, and said it has taken steps to avoid a recurrence. About 600 gigabytes of data was taken off of the Wi-Fi networks in more than 30 countries, including the U.S. Google plans to delete it all as soon as it gains clearance from government authorities.

None of the information has appeared in Google's search engine or other services, according to Eustace.

Nevertheless, Google's decision to hold on to the Wi-Fi data until it hears back from regulators shows the company realizes it could face legal repercussions. At the very least, company officials concede that snooping on Wi-Fi networks, however inadvertent, crossed an ethical line.

"We are acutely aware that we failed badly here," Eustace wrote.

Google's contrition may not be enough to allay growing concerns about whether the company can be trusted with the vast storehouse of personal information that it has gathered through its search engine, and other services.

Fears that Google is morphing into a real-life version of "Big Brother" has spurred previous privacy complaints, as well as pleas for more stringent regulation of the company.

, a group that has become one of Google's most outspoken critics, renewed its call for a regulatory crackdown Friday.

"Once again, Google has demonstrated a lack of concern for privacy," said Consumer Watchdog's John Simpson. "Its computer engineers run amok, push the envelope and gather whatever data they can until their fingers are caught in the cookie jar."

The Wi-Fi data was sucked up while Google expanded a mapping feature called "Street View" that also has pressed privacy hot buttons. Street View provides photographs of neighborhoods taken by Google cameras that have sometimes captured people doing things they didn't want to be seen doing, or in places where they didn't want to be seen.

As it set out to photograph neighborhoods around the world, Google equipped its vehicles with antenna as well as cameras so it could create a database with the names of Wi-Fi networks and the coding of Wi-Fi routers.

What Google didn't know, Eustace said, is that some experimental software was being used in the Street View project, and that programming picked up the Web surfing on publicly accessible Wi-Fi networks if the company's vehicles were within range of the signal.

Google only gathered small bits of information because its vehicles were on the move and its tracking equipment switched channels five times a second.

The incident has prompted Google to abandon its effort to collect network data. In an apparent show of its commitment to privacy, also said it will introduce a new option next week that will allow its users to encrypt searches on its Web site as an added protection against unauthorized snooping.


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May 15, 2010
Oh grow up. Google is one of the few companies actually fighting "Big Brother".

Scare articles like this make me sick.

Let's clarify a few things:

Mistakes do not cross "ethical" lines. Ethics are in regard to what people are choosing to do and whether those decisions are right or wrong. This action was not chosen.

Saying this is unethical is like saying it's unethical to trip and accidentally knock someone over. It's not unethical, it's just something that is polite to apologize about and then to help them back up (say sorry and delete the unused data)

Also the data was unused. So the only issue that this actually causes is it wasted 600 gigs of storage space.

May 15, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

May 15, 2010
Gallen wrote:

Oh grow up. Google is one of the few companies actually fighting "Big Brother".

-------

The only reason a company would do this is to be able to use the
data commercially. It is naive in the least to think otherwise. It
appears they were testing the boundaries for data mining that
could then be used in their proprietary ad searches. A program
that has made it one of the richest companies in the world.

May 15, 2010
An additional cautionary note:
If google can do this, so can others:

"...experimental software was being used in the Street View project, and that programming picked up the Web surfing on publicly accessible Wi-Fi networks if the company's vehicles were within range of the signal."

PERMISSUM SUPERFICIES CAVEO: LET THE SURFER BEWARE

May 15, 2010
Seriously guys? If you hired someone to do a job and as a result of a mistake they made, data was captured that you didn't want.

As the executive, did you make an unethical decision?

No. You asked for something else entirely.

But yes, this does point out a huge problem with WiFi.

May 15, 2010
Grallen: It simply isn't technically possible that this data was captured by accident. The only way that they could have obtained this data was if they were purposefully collecting it. This was indeed a mistake, but it wasn't an accident. Google had to *try* to collect this data. They needed extra equipment running customized software in their street-view vans to do it. That equipment didn't just materialize in those vans by "accident". That software didn't just write itself.

Saying this is an accident is like you coming across an idiot drunk guy lying in the streets, you rifling through his pockets for his wallet, you starting to walk away with his cash, and then getting caught by a passing police officer. "It was an accident, honestly. I have no idea how his possessions ended up in my hand!"

People running unsecured WiFi networks are idiots just like that drunk guy lying in the street, but that doesn't give passer-bys a free pass to steal their stuff:P.

May 16, 2010
Gallen wrote:

Oh grow up. Google is one of the few companies actually fighting "Big Brother".

-------

The only reason a company would do this is to be able to use the
data commercially. It is naive in the least to think otherwise. It
appears they were testing the boundaries for data mining that
could then be used in their proprietary ad searches. A program
that has made it one of the richest companies in the world.
Oh rubbish! it's only 600GB of data, a drop in the bucket. And that data wouldn't have been in a very convenient form that is easy to use. Most of that 600gb would have been useless! I think this is all overblown controversy. I still prefer Google over 'Bing' or any Microsoft product any day of the week!

May 17, 2010
Grallen: It simply isn't technically possible that this data was captured by accident.


They were after very specific, impersonal data related to the setup of the router. To get the data, you need to collect everything it's broadcasting and then erase the stuff that you were not after.

This is more like snapping a photo in the forest of a tree, and finding out that there is more stuff you didn't want in the background. Like some partying teens.

On the same line of thought, the intension would have been for the the "camera", to have a function to automatically edit the background out. It didn't work or the programmer failed to add it.

Still quite obviously an accident.

... Okay, maybe not so obvious since you need to understand the technology involved.

May 17, 2010
Oh grow up. Google is one of the few companies actually fighting "Big Brother".

Mistakes do not cross "ethical" lines. Ethics are in regard to what people are choosing to do and whether those decisions are right or wrong. This action was not chosen.


I very much appreciate Google's reaction. To put it very simply, it was, "Oh, crap! We didn't realize our web crawler was doing this!" People need to remember that programs are written by humans, and are therefore imperfect. It's what the programmer does once the bugs are discovered that are important. The following paragraph from the article sums it up for me:

Google characterized its collection of snippets from e-mails and Web surfing done on public Wi-Fi networks as a mistake, and said it has taken steps to avoid a recurrence. About 600 gigabytes of data was taken off of the Wi-Fi networks in more than 30 countries, including the U.S. Google plans to delete it all as soon as it gains clearance from government...

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