Internet search giant Google has sparked privacy fears after it admitted its fleet of Street View vehicles accidentally captured data from public WiFi networks while taking pictures of residential areas.
The admission has caused a number of privacy advocates and groups to raise concerns about how the company is handling users’ data, and comes alongside a crisis meeting at social network Facebook, which is struggling to deal with similar issues.
Google gathers pictures for its Street View maps feature by attaching a camera to a car. The car drives around streets, taking pictures of houses and landmarks to be uploaded onto the internet – but the company says open WiFi networks were accessed during this process.
“In 2006 an engineer working on an experimental WiFi project wrote a piece of code that sampled all categories of publicly broadcast WiFi data,” Alan Eustace, senior vice president of engineering and research said in a blog post.
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“A year later, when our mobile team started a project to collect basic WiFi network data like SSID information and MAC addresses using Google’s Street View cars, they included that code in their software – although the project leaders did not want, and had no intention of using, payload data.”
When the company found out about the problem, he said, the Street View cars were suspended, and engineers worked quickly to find users’ data. It is currently investigating how it can go about deleting these files.
“Maintaining people’s trust is crucial to everything we do, and in this case we fell short,” he added.
The discovery of the data was actually due to a request from an authority in Hamburg Germany, which wanted to conduct an audit on data sent by the cars.
But while the company has said it is reviewing the software to determine how exactly the data was collected, the issue is set to become a thorn in the company’s side when it comes to combating privacy concerns.
The incident could also damage its reputation as a leader in the search industry, despite its “don’t be evil” motto.
A number of advocates have already complained the Street View service collects too much private information. Some passionate individuals have even attempted to stop the cars from travelling through certain areas by blocking off roads, furious with Google about its data collection practices.
Jim Stewart, chief executive of SEO consultancy firm Stewart Media, says Google does a lot of good things but a mistake once in a while can cost them dearly.
“If you look at things from a privacy perspective, we desperately need competition in search. My personal belief is that a monopoly in anything isn’t a good idea, and so what are people going to do – stop using Google? They just don’t have any competition.”
“That’s the issue we have. People complain about privacy data, but they aren’t able to use anything else because the competition isn’t really putting up a fight.”
But Stewart says he is less concerned with Google’s accidental gathering of information, and more worried about why there are so many WiFi networks left open for public access. He says businesses should be sure to secure their internet to protect any sensitive data.
“The biggest issue here for businesses is making sure you are secured and using security when it comes to your wireless. You go through any major city in Australia and you will find open networks – these can be infiltrated. Remember, you are reliable for your own networks.”
The controversy also comes as social networking giant Facebook has found itself in the middle of a privacy controversy, with users threatening to leave the site. The company is having trouble informing users about its extensive privacy controls, with some blaming the site for allowing others to see personal data, such as photographs and personal information.