Thursday, 05 May 2011 09:21

Google's Street View Wi-Fi cleanup completed months ago Featured


Google has used Privacy Awareness Week to reveal it completed the deletion of Australian Wi-Fi payload data 'mistakenly' collected by its Street View cars as long ago as February.

When Google's Street View cars roamed Australia collecting images for the Google Maps service they were also collecting information about Wi-Fi access points that could be used to help devices without GPS capability to determine their location.

The trouble was that the software used for that part of the task had been created for a different purpose, and it logged the payload of the Wi-Fi packets (ie, the actual data being transmitted) as well as the information about the access point. If an access point wasn't set to use encryption and personal or sensitive data happened to be flowing as a Street View car drove by, that data would have been recorded.

According to reports, the data captured included emails, usernames and passwords.

This, understandably, caused a fuss when Google revealed what had happened. The company worked with local privacy regulators such as Australia's Privacy Commissioner to ensure that the data was deleted in an acceptable manner.

Ironically, Google handed over to regulators in Germany, France and Spain the the data it had mistakenly collected. In March, Google was fined €100,000 by CNIL, the French authority for the protection of privacy and personal data, for failing to respond to its requests in a timely manner.

Other countries were more sensible - please read on.



The Irish Data Protection Commission simply told Google to delete the data, and have the deletion audited. A similar process occurred in Australia, and was completed in February.

Google has now removed Wi-Fi equipment from all its Street View cars. While this will prevent any repetition of the problem, what about the accuracy of the non-GPS location service? Presumably there are now enough Android phones and tablets in use and delivering information to Google to make redundant any intermittent Wi-Fi surveys by Street View cars.

Alan Eustace, Google senior vice president, engineering and research, said the company will continue to automatically blur faces and licence plates in Street View images, provide a mechanism for users to request further blurring or image removal, and ensure that images are not real time.

Regarding the last point, the company has revealed that images collected in Australia are transported to the US on hard drives, which means there is no possibility of them being used in real time. However, "low resolution snapshot sample imagery - typically not of sufficient quality to identify a person, car or even a house - is captured at fixed time intervals... [and] transmitted in real-time (via a cellular connection) to Google in the United States, where they are used and stored for sampling and quality control purposes."


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Stephen Withers

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Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.

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