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German official rebukes Google for collecting private data with Street Views

Over the weekend, Germany's consumer protection minister rebuked Google for collecting snippets of user data off of Wi-Fi networks around the world since 2006.

The activity, which Google admitted to late Friday afternoon, was done as it expanded its Street View mapping application. The company hopes to use the application for location based services. On Friday, Google said in a blog that it had only discovered it was collecting user information off unencrypted Wi-Fi networks after it was asked by the German government to audit its data collection activity as part of its Street View photo archive.

What Google found specifically was that Street View cars passing by homes collected information off residential Wi-Fi networks that went beyond user names and addresses. Google apologized for the error, which it said was inadvertent and part of an engineering error.

But that didn't sit well with German regulators, who said the activity broke local laws.

"According to the information available to us so far, Google has for years penetrated private networks, apparently illegally," Germany's minister of consumer protection Ilse Aigner said in a statement Saturday, according to the Associated Press. She called the admission an "alarming incident."

A Google spokesperson said the company was still talking with European regulators and had nothing additional to say beyond the blog post on Friday. Google said it would dispose of the data it had collected. U.S. regulators haven't weighed in, but the activity comes as the federal government moves closer to create a law and regulatory framework to protect Internet users as businesses seek more refined data on users to sell advertising.

By Cecilia Kang  |  May 17, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Google , Privacy  
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I can't believe that there is not more of an uproar over Google collecting the MAC addresses of wifi hotspots. Google will be combining the MAC address of your personal, private wifi hotspot with the geolocation that their Street View cars collected. The day will come when your teenage kid does a Google search on "sex toys" and Google will tells its advertisers that Joe and Jane Doe of "1234 Main Street, Los Angeles, CA" are into sex toys. That, to me, is a scarier privacy problem than the snippets of traffic they gathered!

Posted by: LiveinSanDiego | May 17, 2010 10:03 AM | Report abuse

Because there is little reason for that outcry.

No, Google shouldn't have tried to capture packets, and it highlights the need for privacy laws as Google could apparently do this without anyone noticing. A company that deals with sensitive data should be subjected to regular audits of their procedures.

But as for the MAC addresses and ids: These are the digital equivalent of me standing in the town square and shouting out my name. This is information that is not necessary for the correct functioning of a network, but is purely meant to announce it: How much more public can information get?

And it's not like Google could use that information without your consent. What Google is building is the equivalent of a phone book. Unless YOU provide them with the data about surrounding hotspots, Google won't be able to identify your location. A webpage doesn't have access to that kind of data, unless you tell it.

Posted by: hansschmucker | May 17, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

Just one more reason why I run my home Wi-Fi network in the "stealth" mode and use the minimum power level to cover my house but not extend beyond my property boundary. Of course, the network and accompanying info is still available via more sophisticated sniffers but they have to work at it a bit more.

Posted by: Post17 | May 17, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

The problem I see with this is _not_ that Google collected MAC addresses from non-protected wifi access points, nor, even, that personal information was accidentally stored in Google's databases, as well.

As a software developer, I understand how such accidents can happen, and I can believe that the extra data _was_ indeed stored by accident.

The problem I have with this is that I have a very hard time believing that no one at Google knew about this accidentally retrieved personal data during the months, or even years that it was being collected.

It defies belief to think that no Google software engineers would have seen this excess data in the database during the development, testing, and debugging of the Street View software during all this time.

I have some personal experience with how Google's software development teams work, and it is _not_ the case that one or two people are off in a corner somewhere, working on major pieces of software, without the oversight of other developers and of managers. And the managers of Google software engineers are, for the most part, experienced software engineers, themselves, which means that they generally would have had no trouble comprehending the technical details of this software work and realizing that there was extra, unwanted data in that database.

So I, for one, have a hard time believing that Google could have not known about this accidentally collected data at all until Germany just happened to question them about this topic recently.

I'm not accusing Google of deliberately retrieving this personal data for nefarious purposes and then trying to hide their actions from the world.

But I am accusing them of taking a lackadaisical, "who cares?" attitude about this extra data and not doing anything about it until they were confronted about it.

I therefore believe there is a good chance that the upper management of Google are not being entirely truthful about the knowledge of the existence of this extra data.

Of course, this is just a suspicion, and I might be completely wrong. However, I think it's a reasonable enough suspicion that it merits a full, legal investigation.

Posted by: HippopotamusMan | May 17, 2010 4:02 PM | Report abuse

BOTTOM LINE - unless YOU secure your WiFi it is a giant gaping security hole.

Anyone who doesn't know that in 2010 is just bending over and asking for it.

Posted by: lquarton | May 18, 2010 1:54 AM | Report abuse

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