Google Admits Vacuuming Up Data from Wi-Fi Networks, Apologizes

Fri, May 14, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    For the past four years, Google has been reaching into unprotected Wi-Fi networks in homes and businesses in more than 30 countries and retaining data about people’s online activities, a practice that the company said Friday was inadvertent and has been stopped.

    Mountain View-based Google said it discovered it was collecting the data after a request nine days ago from authorities in Hamburg, Germany, to review Wi-Fi data collected by its Street View cars, which provide detailed street-level photo imaging used in Google Maps.

    Google said it had accumulated about 600 gigabytes of data — roughly equivalent to 300 million printed pages — transmitted over public Wi-Fi networks. But the company said none of that data was ever accessible to anyone outside the company, nor used in any Google product. Google did not collect any user content from password-protected Wi-Fi networks.

    “The engineering team at Google works hard to earn your trust — and we are acutely aware that we failed badly here,” Alan Eustace, Google’s senior vice president for engineering and research, wrote in a posting to Google’s office blog Friday afternoon. “We are profoundly sorry for this error and are determined to learn all the lessons we can from our mistake.”

    Google said the data collection was the result of a piece of computer code written by a single engineer in an experimental Wi-Fi program in 2006 that was inadvertently used for the Street View program. The company collects data on Wi-Fi networks for the principal purpose of providing locational information to geographic services such as Google Maps.Google said it would delete the data as quickly as possible, and promised to enlist an independent “third party” — perhaps a government agency or other independent group — to review the circumstances behind the breach. But the admission provoked concerns from some privacy advocates.

    “Here they are just out and out snooping in neighborhoods and spying on people,” said John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog, a frequent Google critic who questioned whether Google violated wiretapping laws.

    “This is still under internal investigation, but leaving aside the legality of the issues involved, this was a mistake,” Gabriel Stricker, a Google spokesman, said in an e-mail. “As soon as we uncovered our error, we grounded our Street View cars and segregated the data on our network, which we then disconnected to make it inaccessible.”

    Other experts said that the unique Wi-Fi network identifying code that Google also said it was collecting from all Wi-Fi networks — called a MAC address — could be a privacy issue as well.

    “With a database of MAC addresses, you can tie communications back to a certain location and in the process make anonymity on the Web harder and harder to achieve,” said Chris Hoofnagle, a privacy expert at the UC Berkeley law school.

    Contact Mike Swift at 408-271-3648 or [email protected]. Follow him at

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