Google Acknowledges Collecting Snippets of People’s Online Activities Broadcast Over Wi-Fi

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SAN FRANCISCO, CA (AP) — Google Inc. has
been vacuuming up fragments of people’s online activities broadcast
over public Wi-Fi networks for the past four years, a breach of Web
etiquette likely to raise more privacy worries about the Internet
search leader.

Even Google was troubled by its behavior, and issued a public
apology Friday. The company said it only recently discovered the
problem in response to an inquiry from German regulators.

“Maintaining people’s trust is crucial to everything we do, and in
this case we fell short,” Alan Eustace, Google’s top engineering
executive, wrote in a blog post.

Google characterized its collection of snippets from e-mails and Web
surfing done on public Wi-Fi networks as a mistake, and said it has
taken steps to avoid a recurrence. About 600 gigabytes of data was
taken off of the Wi-Fi networks in more than 30 countries, including
the U.S. Google plans to delete it all as soon as it gains clearance
from government authorities.

None of the information has appeared in Google’s search engine or
other services, according to Eustace.

Nevertheless, Google’s decision to hold on to the Wi-Fi data until
it hears back from regulators shows the company realizes it could face
legal repercussions. At the very least, company officials concede that
snooping on Wi-Fi networks, however inadvertent, crossed an ethical

“We are acutely aware that we failed badly here,” Eustace wrote.

Google’s contrition may not be enough to allay growing concerns
about whether the company can be trusted with the vast storehouse of
personal information that it has gathered through its search engine,
e-mail and other services.

Fears that Google is morphing into a real-life version of “Big
Brother” has spurred previous privacy complaints, as well as pleas for
more stringent regulation of the company.

Consumer Watchdog, a group that has become one of Google’s most
outspoken critics, renewed its call for a regulatory crackdown Friday.

“Once again, Google has demonstrated a lack of concern for privacy,”
said Consumer Watchdog’s John Simpson. “Its computer engineers run
amok, push the envelope and gather whatever data they can until their
fingers are caught in the cookie jar.”

The Wi-Fi data was sucked up while Google expanded a mapping feature
called “Street View” that also has pressed privacy hot buttons. Street
View provides photographs of neighborhoods taken by Google cameras
that have sometimes captured people doing things they didn’t want to be
seen doing, or in places where they didn’t want to be seen.

As it set out to photograph neighborhoods around the world, Google
equipped its vehicles with antenna as well as cameras so it could
create a database with the names of Wi-Fi networks and the coding of
Wi-Fi routers.

What Google didn’t know, Eustace said, is that some experimental
software was being used in the Street View project, and that
programming picked up the Web surfing on publicly accessible Wi-Fi
networks if the company’s vehicles were within range of the signal.

Google only gathered small bits of information because its vehicles
were on the move and its tracking equipment switched channels five
times a second.

The incident has prompted Google to abandon its effort to collect
Wi-Fi network data. In an apparent show of its commitment to privacy,
Google also said it will introduce a new option next week that will
allow its users to encrypt searches on its Web site as an added
protection against unauthorized snooping.

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
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