Google’s Street View cars got more info than planned

If ever you came across a weird looking car – equipped with powerful cameras fixed on its top, roaming the streets of Hong Kong sometime last year don’t fret. It could have been one of Google’s cars deployed to capture panoramic street information for use in its free Google Maps and Google Earth service.

But we soon found out that the search engine giant recorded more than it intended to. Google admitted that such cars deployed across North America, Europe and parts of Asia have mistakenly collected personal data from people sent over unsecured WiFi networks while recording street information using its camera and attached GPS. Such information could have been in the form of e-mail messages, instant messaging conversations or websites visited.

A total of about 600 gigabytes of similar information have been gathered. The company has ended the collection of WiFi network information from its Street View cars and is taking steps to delete private data collected.

To those who praise the existence of WiFi on streets in the city, the incident may be a temporary setback. But not everyone who is in near proximity with the cars was affected by the inadvertent data collection. Homes and offices located on higher floors are likely not affected and secured transactions like e-commerce and online banking are encrypted.

Alan Eustace, Google senior vice-president for engineering and research, wrote that Google’s Street View’s cars had been mistakenly collecting samples of payload data from non-password-protected WiFi networks because of a coding error.

The issue would not have unraveled if a request to audit WiFi data from Data Protection Authority in Germany had not taken place. “We are profoundly sorry for this error and are determined to learn all the lessons we can from our mistake,” Eustace wrote.

Yes indeed, we sure hope to learn something from past mistakes.