Oops! We Did it Again: Google Admits Huge Street View Privacy Blunder

by Matt Klassen on May 21, 2010

In the wake of the devastating privacy debacle that surrounded Google Buzz, late last week the Internet search engine giant admitted another privacy snafu. It turns out that Google has been spying on people’s unsecured Wi-Fi networks the world over with its Street View cars as, over the last four years, they’ve driven through innumerable neighborhoods in the company’s quest to accumulate data for its global mapping service. With the Google Buzz scandal aside, this isn’t even the first time that Google Street View has come under fire for its privacy violations, but it looks like this mistake is by far the worst.

But despite this obvious privacy blunder, Google continues to claim that all this was an accident, that its Street View vehicles inadvertently intercepted over 800 gigs of unsecured data packets from Wi-Fi the world over, and that—here’s the real kicker—for four years they never knew it was happening.

If you’ve ever questioned the value of implementing password protection on your unsecured Wi-Fi network, let this story be a lesson to you. Most people simply don’t understand just how easy it is to snoop or eavesdrop on someone’s open (unsecured) network, with the tools to do so readily available—often times free—on the Internet. Nevertheless, just because it’s easy to take advantage of the technologically illiterate, that doesn’t mean it’s legal, and this is why Federal regulators have stepped in to invest Google’s culpability in this matter.

For its part, the search engine giant isn’t shying away from the problem now that it has come to light. At Google’s I/O conference on Wednesday, Google co-founder Sergey Brin didn’t mince words when addressing this serious issue. “In short, let me just say it: we screwed up…I’m not going to make any excuses about it.” Further, the accidental data collection, the company claims, stems from an experimental Wi-Fi project started in 2006, the code from which was unknowingly integrated later into the Street View system.

While Google is clearly apologetic about what is quickly turning out to be its biggest privacy gaffe, and for this company that’s really saying something, that might not be enough to deter legal action, as both Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations and several state laws prohibit deceptive business practices (and ignorant business practices as well), and could, should Federal regulators find Google guilty of being stupid, levy a significant fine to the search engine giant.

Although I have no doubt that Google inadvertently collected this data, and while I’m sure that the company is truly apologetic, I simply can’t believe that they didn’t know they were collecting this information until Google officials, just last week, blogged about such data collection mistakes occurring in Ireland and Germany.

You mean to tell us Google, that this was the first time that you noticed strange and unwarranted data packet collection, or was this simply the first time you got caught?

With that said, Google is fast taking over the top stop of world’s greatest privacy-killer from the likes of Facebook, and it’ll be interesting to see how the public responds to this news. Even with the admission that this privacy snafu was just a big mistake, will people ever really trust Google with their private information again? Just think of what would happen if by accident Google released customer web search results, then everyone would know how much I surf for…tech news.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. www.digitcom.ca >. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com > by: RSS >, Twitter >, Identi.ca >, or Friendfeed >

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