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Google: Street View team accidentally caught Wi-Fi data

updated 06:00 pm EDT, Fri May 14, 2010

Google admits collecting Wi-Fi info with map team

Google today warned that it had accidentally picked up on Wi-Fi data while taking photos for Google Maps' Street View feature. Cars using the panoramic cameras for the past three years caught not just the SSIDs and MAC addresses that identified networks and devices but also "fragments" of the actual data itself. The intercepts didn't include either whole data or any information that passed over a secure network, the company said.

The slip occurred as code used only to detect the presence of the networks accidentally included test code developed by an engineer in 2006 that would automatically scrape traffic on the networks themselves. Google insisted in a statement that it hadn't intended to collect the data or had any knowledge that it existed until now.

In response, Google said it had halted all Street View photo capturing and now planned to stop getting Wi-Fi information altogether. The company also said it would talk to regulators in countries with Street View maps to make sure it disposes of any data according to local laws.

The issue raises further questions about the privacy of Street View data, which has led some in the UK and elsewhere to sometimes resist the cameras themselves. Google nonetheless disclaimed that it not only recently began using SSL encryption on Gmail but that, next week, it will have a secure version of its core search engine.

"The engineering team at Google works hard to earn your trust--and we are acutely aware that we failed badly here," senior engineering and research VP Alan Eustace said. "We are profoundly sorry for this error and are determined to learn all the lessons we can from our mistake."


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  1. Feathers

    Grizzled Veteran

    Joined: Oct 1999

    +10

    What the h+ll?

    Why were Google scraping people's wi-fi networks when they were supposed to be taking pictures? Why did they develop test code for this purpose at all? This is one weird "accident". "Do No Evil" is starting to sound extremely hollow!

  1. elroth

    Junior Member

    Joined: Jul 2006

    +4

    exactly

    Why did a Google engineer develop test code "that would automatically scrape traffic on the networks themselves"? What could they possible use it for except to spy on people? And why was that "test" code in use by people taking pictures?

    Google is evil. What other privacy violations are they committing/planning?

  1. cmoney

    Mac Enthusiast

    Joined: Sep 2000

    +6

    wifi location data

    i could see how a network's location could be used to provide better location data for users without gps devices. obviously this wouldn't excuse the scraping of data at all but the network name and the associated location is pretty useful.

    as for test code getting out, it probably was included as part of a production build of the software (either by accident or for malicious purposes by the engineer) and then installed on the computers in the cars and forgotten about.

  1. elroth

    Junior Member

    Joined: Jul 2006

    -3

    @wifi location data

    I don't want Google listing my private wifi network in its database - what gives them the right?

    You say it's useful - useful to whom? Someone who may want to try and hack into it?

    I can't believe people are so willing to give up their privacy to Google, Facebook, and whoever else can make money off it. And then be so willing to excuse the "mistakes" when something goes bad. You think Buzz was a mistake too? The only mistake is that people found out about it, and Google had to change it.

  1. smashedbanana

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: Jun 2005

    +9

    Not their fault

    As the article says it is data caught in unsecured traffic.

    If you are dumb enough to leave your wireless unsecured google is the least of your problems.

  1. eddd

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: Dec 2001

    +3

    Simple fix

    Don't broadcast your wireless SSID... an easy setting in every wireless router I've managed, including Apple's

  1. TheSnarkmeister

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: Jun 2007

    +1

    Revisionism

    Apparently "do no evil" has been changed to "don't get caught."

  1. jbwith84

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: Jul 2008

    +4

    WiFi / Network Security

    If you have a WiFi network, how about enabling WPA2 security and not leaving your network unencrypted? Disabling an SSID broadcast provides you ZERO security. I can find your router's radio transmission in less then 10 seconds, with or without an SSID.

    Regardless, most of anything that's remotely important on the internet is already encrypted, without the need of WiFi encryption. Even if someone "hacks" into your WiFi network, they are not getting into your bank account as that data is already encrypted. They are also not going to get into your computer unless you have turned off your computer's firewall and enabled file sharing without enabling any kind of password security.

    People get "hacked" on the internet because they fall for phishing emails or they end up confirming the installation of a virus. Stop that.

  1. Jonathan-Tanya

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: Oct 2004

    +1

    honest mistake

    Google is the company that pulled out of China, over the censorship issue. Contrast that to Apple, who censors their app store at the behest of the communist government of China.

    The constant banter that they are evil, is coming from those who don't believe in the tradition of fair use - a tradition that Google has been defending, and the primary large corporation to defend this right - which helps us all.

    Of course they need to be more careful not to have these PR snafu's.

    But there is a great reason for them to sample wi-fi networks while they are driving around, it's a great way to know how many wi-fi networks are out there, and what the coverage of wi-fi is in general.

    they did not need to accidentally collect any more information than that, but if you are a programmer, you'd know its easy to do...this was an honest mistake, they are correcting it, and working with governments to purge the data in a way, that makes everyone understand its purged.

    They haven't tried to hide anything.

  1. SierraDragon

    Mac Elite

    Joined: Mar 2004

    0

    NOT an "Honest Mistake"

    Even ignoring the data-scraping, intentionally driving around capturing MAC and SSIDs is not some simple unintentional act. It took intentional corporation-wide planning and very substantial resource allocation.

    As to the folks who say "protect your WiFi," well duh. Yes lock your doors - but failure to lock your doors is not somehow an excuse for one of the world's biggest tech firms to walk in the unlocked door and steal information.

    Google cannot be punished enough for this egregious behavior. However in the US probably Google will face no consequences. Does anyone think that just maybe the US government could have been complicit in the data gathering...? If nothing else the NSA no doubt poached the data from Google in real time.

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