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Sunday, June 6, 2010

Google Capitulates To Demands for Street View Data

Under fire, Google has agreed to release the private data collected by its Street View vehicles that it had previously withheld. CEO Eric Schmidt said a rogue engineer is under investigation. Google admitted the private network data was collected in violation of its policies. Google will also arrange an audit of its data-collection operation.

With class-action lawsuits and government investigations gaining steam, Google agreed Thursday to hand over private information Relevant Products/Services collected by its Street View vehicles to European investigators. Google had historicallyin the past resisted such demands, saying it was in conversation with government authorities about destroying the information.
In addition, company CEO Eric Schmidt told the Financial Times this week that an engineer who inserted program in to the Street View vehicles' programs -- code that captured the unauthorized information -- is now the subject of an internal company inquiry.
Two Class-Action Suits
At least two class-action lawsuits have been filed or are being planned in the U.S. in which the plaintiffs contend Google violated federal wiretapping laws. There's also criminal and other government investigations in France, Ireland, France, Germany, Germany and others, and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has been asked by members of Congress to see if laws were broken.
The Street View controversy stems from the collection of private wireless Relevant Products/Services information from Google vehicles, which have ridden down streets worldwide to collect pics for use in the company's Street View application within Google Maps. Google said about 600GB of information was mistakenly collected in 30 countries.
According to Senior Vice President of Engineering and Research Alan Eustace, the company has acknowledged it collected SSID information from wireless routers. That information contains Wi-Fi network Relevant Products/Services names and MAC addresses, which are the matchless numbers given to Wi-Fi routers. At first, Google said it didn't collect "payload information," or the private information sent over networks.
But Eustace later noted that "we have been mistakenly collecting samples of payload information from open (i.e. non-password-protected) Wi-Fi networks." The payload information includes fragments of sites, e-mails and possibly personal banking information. Eustace added that the information has never been used in Google products, and only fragments were collected because the vehicles were moving and the in-car Wi-Fi equipment automatically changes channels about four times each second. No information was collected from password-protected networks, he said.
'Promiscuous with Data'
The reason payload information was collected at all, he said, is that code to do so was left in the program used to collect the SSID and MAC addresses, although the project leaders didn't require or need the information. This is the program that Schmidt said was inserted "in clear violation" of Google's policies. The company has said it will employ an independent third party to conduct an audit of its data-collection operation.
Peter Firstbrook, an analyst with Gartner, said these kinds of privacy issues, including Google's earlier privacy controversy from its Buzz application, are part of a "structural" development that could go on for 20 years or more. In this back-and-forth seesaw, he said, companies push their expertise and product advances that occasionally conflict with users' sense of their privacy rights, and the users push back.
He said that, while "governments are acting appropriately," the solution will must come from consumer and business users who reply negatively to privacy violations. One possibility, Firstbrook said, would be a usually accepted standard that users must take steps to specifically opt in for anything that could violate their privacy.
Firstbrook also noted a growing sense among enterprise users that the search giant is, at heart, "a information mining company," and that it basically "can't help" its aggressiveness that leads to these kinds of privacy issues. As a result, he said, this is directly impacting Google's bottom line, since some enterprise users are hesitant about using the company's cloud Relevant Products/Services-based apps and Gmail at least in part because of Google's tendency to be "promiscuous with information."