Google admits Wi-Fi data collection blunder

BBC (Link) - Maggie Shiels (May 15, 2010)

Google has admitted that for the past three years it has wrongly collected information people have sent over unencrypted Wi-Fi networks.

The issue came to light after German authorities asked to audit the data the company�s Street View cars gathered as they took photos viewed on Google maps.

Google said during a review it found it had �been mistakenly collecting samples of payload data from open networks.�

The admission will increase concerns about potential privacy breaches.

These snippets could include parts of an email, text or photograph or even the website someone may be viewing.

In a blogpost Google said as soon as it became aware of the problem it grounded its Street View cars from collecting Wi-Fi information and segregated the data on its network.

It is now asking for a third party to review the software that caused the problem and examine precisely what data had been gathered.

�Maintaining people�s trust is crucial to everything we do, and in this case we fell short,� wrote Alan Eustace, senior vice president of engineering and research.

�The engineering team at Google works hard to earn your trust - and we are acutely aware that we failed badly here.�

�Pushing the envelope�

Google said the problem dated back to 2006 when �an engineer working on an experimental Wi-Fi project wrote a piece of code that sampled all categories of publicly broadcast Wi-Fi data.�

That code was included in the software the Street View cars used and �quite simply, it was a mistake,� said Mr Eustace.

�This incident highlights just how publicly accessible, open, non-password protected Wi-Fi networks are today.�

Dan Kaminsky, director of penetration testing for security firm Ioactive, said there was no intent by Google.

�This information was leaking out and they picked it up. If you are going to broadcast your email on an open Wi-Fi, don�t be surprised if someone picks it up.�

John Simpson, from the Consumer Watchdog, told the BBC: �The problem is [Google] have a bunch of engineers who push the envelope and gather as much information as they can and don�t think about the ramifications of that.�

Dr Ian Brown, an expert on privacy and cyber security at the Oxford Internet Institute, told BBC News the Wi-Fi data collection was part of an idea to accurately map a user�s location on Google Map and Street View.

�The idea was to use to the different signals and strengths from Wi-Fi and phones to position a users - think of it as a sort of GPS.

�However, there are concerns in many countries that Google has broken numerous data protection and privacy laws by collecting this data and I expect a clutch of lawsuits to follow,� he said.