Google's roaming Street View cameras have been doing more than snap pics of your neighborhood; they've also been collecting packets of information sent over private WiFi networks, the company acknowledged Friday.
The company said the collection was “a mistake,” the result of a programming error, and that it has now stopped collecting the data, according to a post on its blog.
But the revelation raises questions about whether the company violated federal wiretapping laws in collecting the information and could draw scrutiny from U.S. regulators.
Last month, regulators with the Data Protection Authority in Germany asked the search giant what information its Street View cameras collected and what it did with that information.
Google disclosed at the time that in addition to taking pictures, its camera system collected certain data about local WiFi networks set up in neighborhoods where the cameras traveled. That data included the SSID (the network's name) and the MAC address (a unique number given to each WiFi router) and was collected to improve the location-based services it offers consumers.
The company asserted, however, that it did not collect or store “payload data” — that is, web surfing data or the content of e-mails, transmitted over WiFi networks.
The DPA asked to examine the WiFi network data Google collected. The request prompted Google to take a closer look at the data itself, whereby the company discovered that it was indeed collecting snippets of information passing over WiFi networks and therefore its previous statement was incorrect.
The company wrote in an update on Friday that “it's now clear that we have been mistakenly collecting samples of payload data from open (i.e. non-password-protected) WiFi networks, even though we never used that data in any Google products.”
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