Google says mistakenly got wireless data

Sat May 15, 2010 5:18am EDT
 
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By Alexei Oreskovic

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 -- which a security expert said could include email messages and passwords -- sent by consumers over wireless networks.

The company said on Friday that it is currently reaching out to regulators in the relevant countries, which include the United States, 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 on Friday.

For Google, whose Internet search engine handles more than two-thirds of all web searches in the U.S., the snafu 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 Web sites handle users' personal information.

Last month, four United States 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.   Continued...

 
<p>A camera used for Google street view is pictured at the CeBIT computer fair in Hanover March 2, 2010. REUTERS/Christian Charisius</p>