Google Blasted for ‘Alarming’ Privacy Breaches

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Search Giant Vacuumed Up Activities on Public Wi-Fi Networks

Germany’s consumer protection minister blasted
Google Inc. on Saturday after the U.S. Internet giant acknowledged
widespread breaches of privacy in response to a German inquiry.

Google confirmed on Friday that it has been
vacuuming up fragments of people’s online activities broadcast over
public Wi-Fi networks while expanding a mapping feature called "Street

The "alarming incident" shows that
Google still lacks an understanding of the need for privacy, Consumer
Protection Minister Ilse Aigner’s office said in a statement. "According
to the information available to us so far, Google has for years
penetrated private networks, apparently illegally."

Google said it only recently discovered the
problem in response to questions from German regulators. The company has

"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 line.

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

Is contrition enough?

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."

during mapping process

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

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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