Google’s Wi-Fi Data Collection Snafu

One of the news items that’s been bounding about the web and on the airwaves in recent days concerns an admission by Google that it “screwed up” by gathering private wireless data while taking pictures for its Street View mapping initiative.

The mishap came to light first in Australia, where Google was caught capturing 600 gigabytes worth of wi-fi data from personal and business wireless networks without owners’ permission. Google has since been accused of unauthorized interception of user personal data including e-mails, audio and video, which potentially could be linked to specific addresses.

Google insists that the personal data were “inadvertently” collected during the street sweeps by its large fleet of vehicles cruising cities in more than 30 countries.

[For those who are unfamiliar with Google’s Street View mapping tool, you can view an example here by vicariously sauntering down quaint, quiet Robinwood Avenue in Detroit’s North End – home of the late, lamented Marabel Chanin, the most famous inner city resident you’ve never heard of.]

Some observers may be content to take Google management at its word that personal data were “mistakenly” gathered during its street sweeps – despite the fact that this blunder was evidently repeated in Germany, Italy, France, Denmark, Austria, Ireland, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland and the Czech Republic … as well as here in the U.S. in states like Connecticut and Missouri.

Consumer Watchdog calls Google’s action “a flagrant intrusion into consumers’ privacy.” And the Connecticut and Missouri attorneys general are now weighing in as well with their own investigations.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this story is not whether Sergey Brin, Larry Page and the other honchos at Google might or might not have nefarious plans for the use of personal wi-fi data. It’s the realization that such information can be collected at all.

And the next time, it might not be by such a benign organization.

What’s the latest news in this juicy story? Google reports that it has deleted only the personal data it collected in Ireland, Denmark and Austria. For the time being, it’s holding onto the rest.

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