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Google Street View wi-fi privacy fears downplayed

Have Google cars been harvesting your wi-fi data?

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Internet giant Google today attempted to downplay privacy concerns about a ‘mistake’ that resulted in its Street View cars gathering data from homes with unsecured wireless networks. 

Google revealed its blunder late last week in a blog post on its site. It stated that that during a wi-fi data audit requested by the data protection authority in Germany, Google had found that its Street View cars had been ‘mistakenly collecting samples of payload data from open (ie non-password-protected) wi-fi networks’. 

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Secure wireless networks are safe

Google had been using its Street View cars to collect publicly broadcast wi-fi information, such as the wi-fi network name, for use in location-based products such as Google Maps for mobile. This service enables people to find local restaurants or get directions on their smartphones. 

However, at the same time, Google admits, it had been unintentionally gathering fragments of potentially private information that was being sent over unsecured wireless networks – such as part of an email or a photo. 

The problem dates back to 2006, when a piece of code that sampled all categories of publicly broadcast wi-fi data was mistakenly included in the software used by Street View cars.

Google assured the public in its blog that no information had been collected from password-protected wireless networks, and that no wrongly collected data fragments were used in any Google products. 

‘No harm, no foul’ to privacy

Google has decided to stop its Street View cars collecting wi-fi network data entirely in the future. It also plans to carry out independent reviews of the software and internal reviews of procedures. 

Importantly, it plans to delete all wrongly collected wi-fi data as soon as possible. Following a request from the Irish Data Protection Authority, all data collected in error in Ireland has already been deleted. 

But while Google recognises the problem as serious, in a speech today at Google’s annual conference its chief executive Eric Schmidt argued that no real harm to privacy had been done. He told a round-table discussion: ‘It’s highly unlikely that we’ve captured any useful data. And nothing has been done with that data.’

Keep your online data safe

Despite Google’s assertions that no real harm has been done, the organisation is likely to face increased scrutiny from privacy campaigners and regulators around the world. 

And if nothing else, Google’s ‘mistake’ clearly demonstrates the potential danger to internet users of failing to properly protect their wireless networks – an issue that was also highlighted last week when a German citizen was fined £100 for failing to secure their wireless network. 

Don’t allow unauthorised access to your personal broadband – take a look at the host of free Which? advice in our guide to online security. 

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