SAN FRANCISCO — Google said on Friday that for more than three years it had inadvertently collected snippets of private information that people send over unencrypted wireless networks.
The admission, made in an official blog post by Alan Eustace, Google’s engineering chief, comes a month after regulators in Europe started asking the search giant pointed questions about Street View, the layer of real-world photographs accessible from Google Maps. Regulators wanted to know what data Google collected as its camera-laden cars methodically trolled through neighborhoods, and what Google did with that data.
Google’s Street View misstep adds to the widespread anxiety about privacy in the digital age and the apparent willingness of Silicon Valley engineers to collect people’s private data without permission.
Google appears to have acted quickly after questions were raised by the European regulators. Two weeks ago, Google tried to address their questions and criticism in a blog post. It said it did collect certain kinds of data around the world that identify Wi-Fi networks to help improve its mapping products. The information on wireless networks can be used for location-based advertising services for mobile phones, which can sometime be pinpointed via a wireless network even if they lack a GPS chip.
But the company explicitly said then that it did not collect or store so-called payload data — the actual information being transmitted by users over unprotected networks.

In a confession made on Friday afternoon (and late night, European time) that is sure to raise new questions about its privacy policies, Google said that its previous claims were wrong.
Mr. Eustace wrote that a review of the Street View software has revealed that because of a programming error in 2006, the company had indeed been mistakenly collecting snippets of data that happened to be transmitted over nonpassword protected Wi-Fi networks that the Google camera cars were passing. This occurred in Europe, in the United States and in other major cities elsewhere.
Mr. Eustace tried to play down the revelation, saying that Google “never used that data in any Google products.” He said that it collected only fragments of data, because the cars were moving constantly and changing channels many times each second. Only when someone was using their unencrypted, nonpassword-protected network was the data collected and stored.
Google said it had temporarily halted its Street View cars and would stop collecting Wi-Fi network data entirely, Mr. Eustace wrote. He also said Google wanted to delete the data, in cooperation with regulators, as soon as possible.
Google could be accused of intercepting private communications and violating wiretap laws in the United States, although it would most likely argue that it never had any intent to collect or use the data.
And in Europe, where Google has taken great pains to assure a queasy public about a giant American corporation taking photos of their neighborhoods, trust is likely to be further eroded.
Last month, Peter Schaar, Germany’s federal commissioner for data protection, said he was “horrified” by the earlier revelation that Google was collecting data about the location of Wi-Fi networks. He called on the company to “delete previously unlawfully collected personal data on the wireless network immediately and stop the rides for Street View.” Mr. Schaar could not be reached for further comment last night.  source


Google Data Admission Angers European Officials



After being pressed by European officials about the kind of data the company compiled in creating the archive — and what it did with that information — Google acknowledged on Friday that it had collected snippets of private data around the world.Google apologized and said it had not used the information, which it plans to delete in conjunction with regulators.
But in Germany, Google’s collection of the data — which the company said could include the Web sites viewed by individuals or the content of their e-mail — is a violation of privacy law, said Ilse Aigner, the German minister for food, agriculture and consumer protection. In a statement Saturday, her ministry demanded a full accounting.
“Based on the information we have before us, it appears that Google has illegally tapped into private networks in violation of German law,” Ms. Aigner said. “This is alarming and further evidence that privacy law is a foreign concept to Google.”
Over the weekend, Germany's federal commissioner for data protection and freedom of information, Peter Schaar, asked Google to let an independent regulator examine one of the hard drives to determine how much data had actually been collected on individuals.
In a blog posting written late Saturday on his official government Web site, Mr. Schaar, who is also a member of the panel that advises the European Commission on privacy and data protection issues, questioned whether Google's collection of the data was a simple oversight, as the company has maintained.
“This was obviously a mistake, and we are profoundly sorry,” Mr. Oberbeck said. “We take individual privacy very seriously at Google.”
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