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Google: Wi-Fi Spy Data Wasn’t Used

By , INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS TIMES

Fri, Jun 11, 2010 at 3:51 pm

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Google Inc. responded to an inquiry from three congressmen , saying it didn’t use any of the data collected by its Street View cars as they picked up hotspot locations around the world.

On May 26, Congressmen Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) asked Google how much data was collected, for how long, and what it intended to do with it. The congressmen, and many members of the public, have expressed concern that the data could include personal information.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based company’s director of public policy, Pablo Chavez, wrote back yesterday. He said Google is sorry the data was collected, and it is unlikely that any personal information was picked up. Even if it were, the letter said, Google hasn’t analyzed the data closely enough to parse it out, nor does the company intend to use it.

The data was collected from unsecured Wi-Fi networks as cars taking pictures for Google’s Street View feature drove around the United States, recording Wi-Fi hotspot locations.  Street View, a feature on Google’s map page, allows users to see photos of any location or address, just as though one were there taking pictures. The cars were also equipped with Wi-Fi antennas, which tracked locations of Wi-Fi hotspots.

The Wi-Fi data helps Google identify the location of mobile devices. When a smartphone user clicks on “my location” it either uses GPS signals or cell towers to figure out where the device is; Wi-Fi location data helps to narrow it down when the GPS or cellular signal is unavailable or weak.

The controversy started when it was discovered the Street View cars were not just picking up the locations. The cars were supposed to pick up data that identified the location of the networks and what kind of encryption, if any they used, but not gather the data that was carried on them. But sometimes, when the car passed an unsecured network, it would pick up that data. Google said the data gathering was accidental.

Since many of these networks are in people’s homes, there is a chance that some personal information was collected. But Google’s Chavez maintains that is unlikely.

“Because Google Street View cars are on the move and the Wi-Fi equipment automatically changes channels five times per second (and because Wi-Fi frequency bands include 11 channels in the U.S.), we believe any payload data collected would likely be fragmented. It is possible that the payload data may have included personal data if a user at the moment of collection broadcast such information, but we have not conducted an analysis of the payload data in a way that enables us to know exactly what was collected,” he wrote.

Google also said it had destroyed the data in some countries, but for legal reasons has to keep it in the United States. The company also noted that the data was collected from unsecured networks.

In the letter to Google the congressmen asked whether consumers were warned that their data might be collected. Google said that they weren’t and that is within the law because the networks were broadcasting and were unsecured in any case.

That said, the company acknowledged that many people might not see it that way. “We emphasize that being lawful and being the right thing to do are two different things, and that
collecting payload data was a mistake for which we are profoundly sorry,” the letter said.

Google may be asked to give a full accounting before Congress. “Google now confesses it has been collecting people’s information for years, yet claims they still do not know exactly what they collected and who was vulnerable,” Barton said in a statement. “I think this matter warrants a hearing, at minimum.”

Google may also face criminal charges and an investigation from the Federal Trade Commission. The attorneys general of Missouri and Connecticut have both floated the idea that Google broke state wiretapping laws.

Some consumer advocates said the problem is that Google did not seem more open with what happened and why. “As this has unfolded we learn more,” said John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog, which has criticized Google in the past. “I would like to see Google come clean about what they gathered.”

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