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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Google apologises for stealing data

After a slap on the wrist from the Privacy Commissioner, internet giant Google has apologised to all New Zealanders for secretly collecting information from their Wi-Fi networks while filming street views, and has promised to destroy that data.

Commissioner Marie Shroff found that although Google had a legitimate reason for collecting the openly accessible Wi-Fi information, it failed to properly notify the public about that collection, and the collection was unfair.

Google also breached the Privacy Act when it collected payload information (the content of communications) from unsecured networks, she said.

It had no legitimate reason for that collection, and the collection was seriously intrusive.

Police were asked to see if Google's actions amounted to a criminal offence when Shroff began her investigation in May, but she said the company had a legitimate reason for collecting data and police would not prosecute.

Google deliberately collected information about the networks, including their names and whether they were secured and signal strength, without telling people.

It also collected information such as emails crossing unsecured wireless networks at the time its street view cars were in range, including data used to determine the approximate location of a Wi-Fi device that lacked GPS hardware.

"Google has acknowledged that it went about things the wrong way here," Shroff said today.


"It failed to tell people that it was collecting the open Wi-Fi information and what it was going to use it for. This was not good enough."

Google's methods of collecting information had prompted an increase in complaints and inquiries to the commissioner.

The 978 complaints in the past financial year were up on 806 the previous year. Inquiries were also up, by 500 to 7151, largely due to Google's collection of data for its street view.

In some American states, investigators have looked at prosecuting Google under wiretapping laws and prosecutors have demanded that Google turn over the data to regulators.

Google began driving its street view cars in New Zealand in 2007, to collect images for use in Google maps, but also collected Wi-Fi network data to improve location-based services for mobile phones.

Today it said it did not want the payload data - information sent over the Wi-Fi networks - it collected.

"Our collection of payload data was a mistake for which we are sincerely sorry, and we'd like to apologise to all New Zealanders," the company said.

While Wi-Fi network names and the unique numbers given to a device like a Wi-Fi router are publicly broadcast "some people felt we should have been more explicit about what we were collecting," engineering and research vice president Alan Eustace.

"We should have had greater transparency around our initial collection of publicly broadcast Wi-Fi network information. We're sorry for not realising this sooner."

Shroff said if Google's privacy practices had been more sound, it would have been far less likely to made mistakes.

"As soon as practicable, Google will delete the payload data that it collected," she said.

"The apology, undertakings and destruction of the payload information are an appropriate and pragmatic way of resolving the problems."

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