Like Facebook, Google Struggles With a Privacy Issue

By Daniel Indiviglio

We all know that Facebook has had more than its fair share of struggles with privacy issues. But the social networking site isn't the only Internet titan battling privacy concerns. Google obtained data it probably shouldn't have through the process it uses to take photographs for its Street View maps service. Several European nations complained, however, and Google is surrendering the private information.

Here's what happened, via the New York Times:

Last month, Google revealed it had been inadvertently collecting 600 gigabytes of personal data, saying that the roving, camera-mounted cars in its Street View program had collected not only photographs of neighborhoods but snippets of private information from people whose personal Wi-Fi networks were left unencrypted.

According to the article, that data is thought to include personal information like e-mail and bank account numbers.

For starters, those must be some cameras. How did they also manage to get data like e-mail and bank account numbers from unsecure Wi-Fi networks? Apparently, the software Google uses was accidentally obtaining this information.

Some European countries, including Germany, Spain, and France, cried foul. Yet, Google initially resisted requests to hand over the data. But now, the company has decided that this data collection was a "clear violation" of Google's rules. So it will provide it to the authorities in those nations.

Secretly obtaining personal data from unsuspecting individuals as you drive by their homes certainly seems to go against the company's "don't be evil" mantra. Yet, the company still hasn't surrendered the information to U.S. regulators, according to the Times. The only non-nefarious reason for holding onto someone's secretly obtained bank account number would be if you plan to put free money in her account. Somehow, it seems unlikely that's the company's plan. This serves as another reason to make sure your wireless Internet is password-protected: Google may be watching.

Update: I received an e-mail from Simon Owens who noted this article from ComputerWorld, noting that Google may have tried to patent the WiFi sniffing technology. This might cast some doubt on how inadvertent its collection of this data really was.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2010/06/like-facebook-google-struggles-with-a-privacy-issue/57694/