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Posted at 3:51 PM ET, 06/11/2010

Google: for three years we may have collected personal data from Street View cars

By Cecilia Kang

Google said it may have collected personal information from its Street View mapping cars, according to a letter to lawmakers earlier this week.

The firm also said it began collecting information from residential Wi-Fi networks three years ago and did not inform consumers directly that it was doing so.

The admission comes as privacy advocates, lawmakers and regulators grow increasingly concerned about privacy practices of Google and social networking sites such as Facebook. A security breach of AT&T’s network that exposed the e-mail addresses of 114,000 iPad users earlier this week underscored the vulnerability of user data as consumers flock to buy ever more powerful computing devices for business and personal use.

“This is deeply troubling for a company that bases its business model on gathering consumer data,” said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), one of three legislators who questioned the company on its Street View misstep. “As we are contemplating privacy legislation in the committee, I think this matter warrants a hearing, at minimum.”

In a letter dated June 9 to Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif), Barton and Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Google said its collection of data was an accident and that the firm never used or analyzed the information it collected.

But Google said it may have collected personal information of Internet users.

“It is possible that the payload data may have included personal data if a user at the moment of collection broadcast such information, but we have not conducted an analysis of the payload data in a way that enables us to know exactly what was collected,” wrote Pablo Chavez, director of public policy for Google.

He wrote that the information collected included router identifier numbers, the signal strength and data transmission rates of Wi-Fi networks, and the type of encryption methods used by those hot spots. The Wi-Fi information, used to enhance its location-based services, was collected by antennas on top of its Street View mapping cars. Those cars drive around neighborhoods in dozens of countries to take pictures for its map program – a separate project from its efforts to identify Wi-Fi hotspots for its location-based services.

In answer to whether Google informed residents when its was amassing its database of residential Wi-Fi networks, the company pointed to a New York Times story and Wikipedia entry about its practices.

“The fact that Google collects network information broadcast by Wi-Fi routers to improve location-based services has been widely known,” Chavez wrote. “In retrospect, it is clear there should have been greater transparency about the collection of this data.”

Google said it destroyed the data collected in Ireland, Denmark and Austria. But because of U.S. lawsuits about the breach, it has retained U.S. Wi-Fi information.

By Cecilia Kang  | June 11, 2010; 3:51 PM ET
Categories:  Google, Privacy  
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Providing a free public service like search is a good thing but gathering data about users without their prior knowledge and consent is wrong.

Posted by: knowledgenotebook | June 11, 2010 4:27 PM | Report abuse

Google, the government's inroad to personal data that it could not collect legally. No wonder the government insisted on retroactive immunity for telecoms and other information carriers two years ago. Google has been at it for at least three years.

Posted by: infuse | June 11, 2010 4:30 PM | Report abuse

Providing a free public service like search is a good thing but gathering data about users without their prior knowledge and consent is wrong.

Posted by: knowledgenotebook
Free service?

Come on--just like an old media entity like WAPO, Google runs on advertising revenue... Their "free" services are oftentimes just another hook to get people into situations where they can be subject to more marketing gimmickry...

Posted by: charlieartist | June 11, 2010 4:33 PM | Report abuse

Streets are called "public" for a reason. People who don't want to live on a public street have the option of gated communities.

Posted by: billwald | June 11, 2010 4:35 PM | Report abuse

What actual privacy did they violate? WiFi is radio, radio broadcasts radio signals, those radio signals contain identifiable information that pertains to the network and router but not a particular person. Of course if they match that information with a gmail account or similar service they own then they will know who you are. But again, has a law been violated? This data is what is going to make google a powerhouse for sometime to come.

Posted by: rcc_2000 | June 11, 2010 4:39 PM | Report abuse

Oh give me a break. If the federal government had cars with 360-degree camera setups filming all our houses and downloading wifi information, there would be blood in the streets. But because a giant faceless corporation with a catchy slogan is doing it, people think it is fine. I can't believe people are trying to defend this company, the same one that helped the Chinese repress 1 billion people for years. Hey, I put my garbage out on the curb to be collected, so I guess Google can pay people to rifle through my garbage and post private information on the internet.


Posted by: zippyspeed | June 11, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

Like it or not, if someone is broadcasting on an open network connection, anyone can listen in.

Posted by: gmclain | June 11, 2010 5:13 PM | Report abuse

This is a non-story. If your wifi isn't encrypted, anybody can and will listen to it. It's not a crime, no more than taking a picture of someone's house from the sidewalk is a crime

If you want privacy, encrypt your wifi. Let's not allow the politicians to go on an ignorance-fueled witch hunt against Google.

Posted by: kcx7 | June 11, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

For those not paying attention, it is illegal to tap into anyone's computer network or wi-fi and use or view their information, even it's just checking the weather. Just because you can tap in easily doesn't make it legal.

Those who think privacy can only be maintained behind locked doors, shut blinds, and wired (not wireless) phones are probably those who snoop, eavesdrop, look through blinds with binoculars, etc. You know, reporters.

Posted by: hc2254 | June 11, 2010 7:31 PM | Report abuse

A story that does not put Google in a good light. This does not fit in with LBrettGlass's conspiracy theory.

Posted by: RepealObamacareNow | June 11, 2010 8:40 PM | Report abuse

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Posted by: f87dsa9fda | June 11, 2010 8:48 PM | Report abuse

So, does that make well-heeled early adopters with an expectation of privacy 'miscreants' ?

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Posted by: itkonlyyou116 | June 12, 2010 8:58 AM | Report abuse

The perception that the information is publicly available to all doesn't make its collection benign.

What would happen if Google stumbled upon a super-heavy-duty, state-the-art encryption program while snapping low-tech pictures on a residential street in Stockholm? Who would be interested in that? Probably the folks who silently mirrored Google's databases before Google destroyed the data.

Posted by: blasmaic | June 12, 2010 4:26 PM | Report abuse

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