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Google Admits Street View Cars Stole WiFi Data

Gordon Kelly


Google Admits Street View Cars Stole WiFi Data

Is this Google's worst nightmare?

If you listen to conspiracy theories the tech giant is regularly accused of secretly collecting our data for nefarious purposes, something Google has long denied - until now.

In an exposé which is likely to fuel even greater conspiracy theories for years to come, Google has admitted its Street View cars have been collecting information from WiFi networks as they passed by. This includes networks' SSID (WiFi network name), MAC addresses (the unique number given to each device on a WiFi network) and payload data (information sent over the network. Oh dear me.

The upside? It only occurred with open (ie non-password protected) WiFi networks and Google promises it was a complete accident.

"It’s now clear that we have been mistakenly collecting samples of payload data from open (i.e. non-password-protected) WiFi networks, even though we never used that data in any Google products," announced Google engineering and research senior VP Alan Eustace. "However, 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 WiFi equipment automatically changes channels roughly five times a second. In addition, we did not collect information traveling {sic} over secure, password-protected WiFi networks."

"So how did this happen? Quite simply, it was a mistake," Eustace continued. "In 2006 an engineer working on an experimental WiFi project wrote a piece of code that sampled all categories of publicly broadcast WiFi data. A year later, when our mobile team started a project to collect basic WiFi network data like SSID information and MAC addresses using Google’s Street View cars, they included that code in their software—although the project leaders did not want, and had no intention of using, payload data."

Since the discovery Google says it has grounded all Street View cars and segregated the data on its network. It has also asked third party regulators to step in and independently dispose of the information. From now on it promises all Street View cars will cease collecting WiFi data.

"The engineering team at Google works hard to earn your trust—and we are acutely aware that we failed badly here," Eustace concluded. "We are profoundly sorry for this error and are determined to learn all the lessons we can from our mistake."

Lesson number 1: PROTECT your WiFi connections people (especially in light of the horrendous consequences of the Digital Economy Act).

Lesson number 2: With Street View's next phase to be filming inside shop stores you can never line your home with too much lead...


Google Blog


May 17, 2010, 4:09 am

If anybody is stupid enough to have open WiFi networks they deserve everything they get.


May 17, 2010, 6:36 am

@RonRoyce - Maybe, but I'm still struck by how many people leave their WiFi networks open. I live in an semi-detached street, and there's always 2-3 open networks near me. Now, did they just leave their Routers at the default settings, or are they purposely leaving their networks open, and why?


May 17, 2010, 7:15 am

"Lesson number 2: With Street View's next phase to be filming inside shop stores you can never line your home with too much lead... "

That is what I was doing... but lead based paint is now illegal. :P

Hamish Campbell

May 17, 2010, 11:45 am

Lead based paint illegal now? Very clever Google, very clever indeed.


May 17, 2010, 12:52 pm

Don't see what the worry is, to be honest. It's not like they published any data, and they've owned up (kudos for this) and are having it cleansed. More importantly though, all Google did was trundle down the street listening to open WiFi. They weren't using high gain directional antennas or any other such technology; there was no attempt to hack any security; basically they did nothing beyond what anyone could do with a laptop and some well known free WiFi packet sniffing software.

As RonRoyce says, if people are going to leave their wireless networks unsecured, they shouldn't be surprised if someone listens in. They should be thankful it was Google, who can be relied upon not to do anything nefarious with the data they collected. It could equally have been someone with far more sinister intentions.


May 17, 2010, 1:50 pm

Did we really not know that Google collects wi-fi positioning data? I thought that's how they located you (along with data from mobile masts) on google maps if you don't have GPS.


May 17, 2010, 2:44 pm

Teh Hackzorz!!! Google in the confession box well I never.

I'm more concerned that my peers will look down on humble abode with snobbish horror TBH

Google + Privacy = LOL


May 17, 2010, 2:46 pm

@Ron Royce

Thanks so i am stupid for caring and sharing, don't tell me... you are a plant, a spook.

Cliff Cheetham

May 17, 2010, 2:58 pm

hmm, maybe Google could offer to send a "how you set-up your router - you Dumb ass" book to everyone affected - I mean - it's not like they don't know where they live...!


May 17, 2010, 3:08 pm

@Bluepork - read the article. It isn't just access point name and position, they are owning up to accidentally logging data packets from open networks they came across.


May 17, 2010, 3:19 pm

@John McLean

"Google, who can be relied upon" - not by me. Don't trust any big corporation / organisation - just see what HMRC can do to lose data!


I think you'll find that they don't use WiFi in itself to locate where you are, but the cell bases near you (for your mobile) or your IP address for your PC.

Peter 20

May 17, 2010, 5:17 pm

I don't know what's the big fuss about, technically what google did is nothing that anyone of us hasn't already done if they ever driven around town with a turned on laptop in their car. Any "modern" laptop computer will constantly search for wireless network signals it could connect to, hence detecting and collecting the Network name and MAC address of the wireless device. That's the only way you could connect to a network if you chose to do so.


May 17, 2010, 6:04 pm

well at least it was google who accidently did this and at least they put their hands up and are bringing in a third party to delete the data, who knows what facebook would have done with the info

@Kaurisol: I would say google and HMRC are pretty different, one purposely took the information out into the public and left it unencrypted on a train/public, the other accidently collected this 'not very useful' data and have appologised of their own accord and have taken steps to delete the data


May 17, 2010, 8:24 pm

Ah yes, the tech world's Oxymorons

Google + Privacy

Microsoft + Quality Software

Oracle + Humility

Microsoft + Works

Super + Information Highway

Supporting + documentation


May 27, 2010, 2:37 am

@Ron Royce

Thanks so i am stupid for caring and sharing, don't tell me... you are a plant, a spook.

@Hank. Caring and sharing? Please elucidate. My understanding of that is that you keep your WiFi open so others can use it freely? Bizarre...

Incidentally I am neither a plant or a spook - merely puzzled why people would leave their networks completely open and unsecured. In Germany they are legislating to fine you for not securing your network. What does that tell you? Maybe the plant reference needs to be levelled elsewhere...

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