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Street View cars mistakenly nabs personal data over open WiFi networks, says Google

Ross Miller

Let this be a very strong reminder to password-protect your WiFi networks... but first, some backstory. In 2006, a Google engineer "working on an experimental WiFi project" wrote a piece of code for collecting "all categories of public broadcast WiFi data" -- basically, all information (known as "payload") downloaded and uploaded from an open / non-password protected network. That code -- by mistake, as VP of Engineering and Research Alan Eustace says -- wound up a year later into the software Google's Street View cars used to collect location-based data. Eustace addressed the situation in an official blog post today -- the revelation of the payload data reportedly discovered after an audit requested by Hamburg, Germany's data protection authority (DPA). The original intention, he said, was to obtain only SSID information and MAC addresses, but that just wasn't the case.

Offering an open apology, he reassured that this affected only open networks and, given the cars being "constantly on the move," only fragments of data were collected -- fragments that he says were never looked at or even noticed until the audit. Plans are currently in action to remove the extraneous info -- "we want to delete this data as soon as possible, and are currently reaching out to regulators in the relevant countries about how to quickly dispose of it." Additionally, all affected Street View cars have been grounded, so that great idea you had about dressing up as a Power Ranger and getting yourself a spot in Google Maps coordinates? Looks like that loss of privacy might've afforded you some extra time to paint the helmet.

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