Search giant Google has caused considerable controversy with an admission that it has been collecting vast amounts of data from Wi-Fi networks around the UK via its roaming Street View cars.
A spokesperson for Google explained that the vehicles, which had ostensibly been sent out to capture street-level 360 degree images for the firm’s online mapping service, had also been capturing data transmitted to and from various Wi-Fi hotspots.
Google’s Alan Eustace said that Google routinely captured publicly broadcast information such as the names of Wi-Fi networks, which is not in itself a particularly unscrupulous act, even if it might be seen as such by some. However, Google has admitted that some rouge code created four years ago and then transferred onto the Street View cars has caused Wi-Fi data traffic to be collected and catalogued, apparently without Google’s knowledge.
Google’s intention had been to perform a Wi-Fi census at the same time as obtaining the Street View from the vehicles, acquiring MAC addresses and network names. However, Mr Eustace has been vocal in dismissing the idea that anyone involved in the project had intended to collect other personal data using the service, or that any of this potentially sensitive information would later be used by the search giant.
Since discovering the unintentional data harvest, Google has grounded the Street View vehicles, which are still in operation around the world, until it can confirm that the offending code has been completely eradicated from every one of its fleet.
Critics have been quick to brand this incident as further proof of the firm’s inadequate approach to the privacy of personal information. Consumer rights expert John M. Simpson said that the objectives and goals given to Google’s programmers were at odds with the public image presented by the firm, with clandestine data acquisition occurring until the public is made aware via an incident such as this, at which point an executive is wheeled out to contradict the damning evidence.
Google has sought the services of an independent investigative team to discover how such a startling error could have occurred, although this too has enraged critics, with many saying that Google should not have any hand in the selection of external investigators.