Google's Street View cars have been spying on people's internet use for three years, the search giant admitted last night. It had been scooping up snippets of people's online activities broadcast over unprotected home and business wi-fi networks.
Google admitted that the cars' radio antennae snooped on e-mails and other bits of information when the vehicles trundled through towns and cities. Google said that the data was collected only in short bursts as the vehicles passed by, and was never used.
The cars, which have cameras on a pole, have covered most of the towns and cities in the UK. Street View, launched in the US in 2007, provides real-world images of streets and roads that the user can manipulate, as part of Google's online mapping products.
Its launch in the UK in April last year provoked a storm of protest, when people claimed that its images would help burglars seek out where to strike and invaded home owners' privacy.
The Information Commissioner's Office this year cleared Street View of any breach of the Data Protection Act but privacy regulators have expressed concern about the service. Yesterday's confession will raise more fears about internet users' privacy and how much personal information Google collects through its search engine and other services. Google admitted: "Maintaining people's trust is crucial to everything we do, and in this case we fell short."
Google made the admission after German authorities began to examine why Google was using the cars to collect wi-fi data at all. A month ago Google said it was collecting only the name and location of local wi-fi networks - information, it argued, that was publicly available and was useful to help it improve its location services. Its data collection was much more invasive.
Internet activity such as e-mails, photos and which websites a user was looking at could have been collected by the cars. Google said that activity on secure websites, such as banking websites, could not be accessed and any activity on password-protected networks was also safe.
"We will typically have collected only fragments of payload data because our cars are on the move; someone would need to be using the network as a car passed by; and our in-car wi-fi equipment automatically changes channels roughly five times a second," Alan Eustace, senior vice-president of engineering and research for Google wrote in a blog. "It's now clear that we have been mistakenly collecting samples of payload data from open networks."
Google said it had contacted some privacy authorities in Europe and wanted to delete data. Street View cars would not collect any more wi-fi data. Experts said passwords, as well as general surfing, could have been caught in Google's dragnet.