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Google Admits to Snooping on Personal Data via Street View Cars

Google Violates Wi-Fi Privacy
Chevy Chase may not have been a big enough man to admit to his own wrongdoing in 'Fletch Lives,' but Google, apparently, is. On Friday, Google engineering chief Alan Eustace admitted that, for the past three years, his company has been unknowingly collecting personal data sent over open Wi-Fi networks. The admission, as the New York Times reports, came as a response to a recent inquiry from a German data protection agency, which requested permission to audit the Wi-Fi information that Google collects to put together its Street View feature on Google Maps. In a post published two weeks ago, the company insisted that, although it collects certain kinds of data to identify Wi-Fi networks around the world, it has never compiled any private information sent across those networks. After the German audit prompted Google to reexamine its data-mining practices, though, company engineers realized that they were mistaken, and had in fact been collecting so-called "payload data" from individuals sending information across password-unprotected networks.

Eustace blamed the inadvertent data collection on a programming error committed in 2006, and tried to reassure users that Google has "never used that data in any Google products." Eustace also pointed out that the company's constantly moving Street View vehicles change Wi-Fi channels so frequently, that they were only able to pick up bits and pieces of information as they were passing by open networks. For the time being, Google will not launch any more camera-equipped Street View cars, and will reportedly work with investigators to delete the private data as soon as possible.

That likely won't do much, however, to mute consumer concern. As the Times points out, Google could very well find itself in hot legal water as a result of its SNAFU, which, intentional or not, may have violated U.S. wiretapping laws. European privacy advocates, moreover, have had long-running beef with Google over its Street View motorcade, and this stunning mea culpa will almost certainly strain the company's transatlantic relations, as well. We suppose that the silver lining in all of this is that Google 'fessed up, and owned the mistake. We'll never know how much of this can be chalked up to a simple "Oops," and how much of it was, "Oops, we got caught." What really matters at this point, though, is that Google appears willing to answer some hard questions. [From: Google; via: NYT]

Tags: data, DataCollection, google, GoogleMaps, privacy, street view, StreetView, StreetViewMaps, StreetViewPrivacy, top, web, wi-fi, wifi