Google cars picked up private data from homes
Published 18/05/2010 | 05:00
INQUIRIES by German data officials led to the inadvertent discovery that Irish people's private online information had been collected by internet search giant Google.
The firm admitted it was forced to destroy private online information gathered from scores of homes and offices around Ireland.
Google collected around 600 gigabytes of data -- about the same as a standard home computer hard drive -- from wireless internet networks through cars which were photographing Irish streets for Google Earth.
And to add further embarrassment to the company, the revelations came just two weeks after it had denied it was storing any controversial 'payload' data, which included the content of sent emails and website browsing history.
"We can confirm that all data identified as being from Ireland was deleted over the weekend in the presence of an independent third party," Google said.
"We are reaching out to data protection authorities in the other relevant countries about how to dispose of the remaining data as quickly as possible."
Last night, the deputy data protection commissioner Gary Davis welcomed Google's fast reaction to the problem but said tighter controls were needed to make sure such privacy breaches didn't happen again.
"We had an hour-long conference call with Google on Friday and they informed us of what happened," Mr Davis told the Irish Independent. "They said they never intended to pick that information up. We told them to destroy the information and make sure a third party was present to verify this had happened.
"Google promised us they'll ramp up their process relating to how they would collect information in the future. This experience points to the need to strengthen their internal controls and focus on privacy issues."
The sensitive information was picked up by Google while they were collecting data for controversial new product Street View, which lets users view photos of streets on the Google Maps website. Several groups have raised privacy concerns about the project, describing it as a "gift to thieves".
Throughout the data collection process, specially modified cars that took the photos were also equipped to collect publicly broadcast SSID information (the wireless network name) and MAC addresses (the unique number given to a device like a wireless router). However, they inadvertently gathered the more private records.
Alan Eustace, the company's senior vice-president for engineering and research, tried to play down the potential privacy problems.
"We will typically have collected only fragments of payload data because our cars are on the move, someone would need to be using the network as a car passed by, and our in-car wi-fi equipment automatically changes channels roughly five times a second.
"In addition, we did not collect information travelling over secure, password-protected wi-fi networks," he said.