Google Wi-Fi privacy row: Schmidt admits search engine 'screwed up'
Google "screwed up" after its Street Cars wrongly mapped every wireless network in Britain to use the information for commercial purposes, Eric Schmidt, its chief executive has admitted.
In an interview with Financial Times, the search engine’s boss admitted the company could have gained access to the personal details of millions of unsuspecting internet users.
Google is currently at the centre of a global privacy storm after it admitted that its Street View cars had mistakenly collected information sent over unencrypted Wi-Fi networks.
The company is currently facing a series of international investigations over the crisis after it admitted recording information broadcast via unsecured wireless networks in family homes.
In his most frank statements on the privacy storm that has engulfed the search engine giant, Mr Schmidt, 55, admitted on Friday the company had blundered in the row.
He also said he could not rule out the possibility that personal data, such as bank account details, was among the data collected by the its controversial 360 degree electronic picture mapping vehicles.
“We screwed up. Let’s be very clear about that,” Mr Schmidt told the Financial Times.
“If you are honest about your mistakes it is the best defence for it not happening again.”
He appeared to blame a Google engineer who inserted a rogue computer code in the Street Car software system in a “clear violation” of the company’s code.
The engineer, who has not been named, is currently facing disciplinary action.
The company has faced a series of embarrassing questions over its harvesting of the data, which UK authorities said appeared to be in breach of the Data Protection Act.
But in a desperate attempt to diffuse the growing row over its latest privacy blunder, Mr Schmidt said officials would begin handing over to the rogue data to European regulators within the next two days.
It will initially hand over the data to German, French and Spanish data protection authorities.
It will also publish the results of an external audit into the practice, where the private information it obtained over families' use of the internet.
His comments contrast with those he made recently at a round-table at the Zeitgeist conference in London.
"It's highly unlikely that we've captured any useful data in that," he told the conference.
"And nothing has been done with that data."
Mr Schmidt told the Financial Times that the company would conduct an internal review into all its privacy practices.
He insisted that despite the series of controversies the company culture, which allows engineers freedom to create new products and services, would not change.
He said the so-called “20pc time”, where employees could pursue personal projects would continue.
“It would be a terrible thing to put a chilling effect on creativity,” he said.
“You are better off having a company operating on a set of principles, that you can at least model, than a political process, which clearly does not produce rational outcomes.
“Google is big and Google is disruptive by design. We are trying to do things that are new and when you disrupt things, the people who are being disrupted complain.”
He added: We are in the information business and everyone has an opinion about information. But the laws [covering these areas] are inconsistent.”
“The arrogance comes across because we try to do things for end-users against organised opposition from stakeholders that are unhappy – and they paint us as arrogant.
“But I am sure that all successful organisations have some arrogance in them.”
The company will not, however, face any action in the UK because the Information Commissioner is satisfied with the company's promise to delete the data "as soon as reasonably possible”.
The ICO has ordered Google to destroy all of the personal data.