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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Google Inc said its fleet of cars responsible for photographing streets around the world have for several years accidentally collected personal information that consumers send over wireless networks.
The company said on Friday that it is currently in touch with regulators in several countries, including the United States, Germany, France, Brazil and Hong Kong, 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 on Friday.
Google, the world's largest Internet search engine, did not specify what kind of data it collected, but a security expert said that email content and passwords for many users, as well as general Web surfing activity, could easily have been caught in Google's dragnet.
"The bottom line is a lot of personal content is definitely available in open WiFi hotspots," said Steve Gibson, the president of Internet security services firm Gibson Research Corp.
He noted that most non-Web based email products, based on the POP and IMAP standards, do not encrypt log-in information or the messages people send. And he said that Google's own web email product, Gmail, has only in recent months encrypted the email messages that users send after their initial sign-on, which has been encrypted.
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 Maps product.
Collecting the WiFi data was unrelated to the Google Maps project, and was done instead so that Google could collect data on WiFi hotspots that can be used to provide separate location-based services.
Google said the collection of data was a simple mistake resulting from a piece of computer code that was accidentally included from an experimental project. Google said it became aware of the mistake in the past week, shortly after telling a German regulator that it was not collecting such information.
A Google spokesperson said the Street View cars have been collecting the information since 2006 in more than 30 countries.
"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 had "failed badly" in maintaining its users trust.
Reporting by Alexei Oreskovic, editing by Leslie Gevirtz and Bernard Orr