Google obtained data 'mistakenly'

09:07, May 17, 2010      

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Google said its fleet of cars used to photograph streets around the world has for several years accidentally collected personal information - which a security expert said could include e-mail messages and passwords - sent by consumers over wireless networks.

The company said Friday that it is currently reaching out to regulators in the relevant countries, which include the US, Germany, France, Brazil and Hong Kong in China, about how to dispose of the data, which Google said it never used.

"It's now clear that we have been mistakenly collecting samples of payload data from open (i.e. non-password-protected) WiFi networks," Google Senior VP of Engineering and Research Alan Eustace said in a post on Google's official blog.

For Google, whose Internet search engine handles more than two-thirds of all web searches in the US, the news could mark an embarrassing blow to its reputation as a trusted custodian of consumers' personal information.

And the revelation comes at a time of increasing concern among consumers and regulators about the way that websites handle users' personal information.

Last month, four US Senators sent a letter to Facebook, the world's largest Internet social network, expressing concern about recent changes to the service and the company's privacy practices.

Marcia Hofmann, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the fact that Google collected the data by accident would probably protect the company from liability under the federal wiretap law, which prohibits unauthorized access of communications.

"To violate the law requires that the interception was intentional," said Hofmann, while noting that she did not know how Google might fare under laws in other countries.

A Google spokesperson said the Street View cars have been collecting the information since 2006 in more than 30 countries.

Google did not specify what kind of data the high-tech cars collected, but a security expert said that e-mail content and passwords for many users, as well as general Web surfing activity, could easily have been caught in Google's dragnet.

Google's Street View cars are well known for crisscrossing the globe and taking panoramic pictures of the city streets, which the company displays in its online Maps product.

Google had insisted previously that it was only collecting WiFi network names and addresses and said it became aware of the mistake in the past week, shortly after telling a German regulator that it was not collecting such information.

"As soon as we became aware of this problem, we grounded our Street View cars and segregated the data on our network, which we then disconnected to make it inaccessible," Google's Eustace said, noting that Google was reviewing its procedures and retaining a third-party to audit the software at issue and the data that was gathered.

Source: Global Times


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