Thursday, May 20, 2010

Google Maps Leeks Private Info on WIFI Networks

A code which mistakenly sampled public WiFi data forced Google to ground its fleet of Street View cars -- meant to collect information for Google Maps and other location-based programs indefinitely, according to the company's official blog last Friday.

Written in 2006 for a separate WiFi experiment and programmed into the cars, the code inadvertently picked up snippets of unencrypted data as the vehicles drove by. Granted, the stream of information changed about five times per second, however, the cars still retained the collected data. Google is being audited by a third-party company and is figuring out how to dispose of the information based on local guidelines.

While Google's quick fess up was commendable considering the recent flack it's been receiving for privacy flubs, it does paint a tale of caution for Internet users who don't use secure and/or password-protected networks. In exchange for using free WiFi (whether from a cafe or your neighbor's gracious generosity) you could be giving up sensitive and personal information to any random creeper -- not just a multibillion dollar corporation being scrutinized and held responsible by the public and private sectors. Luckily Google is getting rid of the information ASAP (or so it claims), but you never know who's collecting data over public WiFi and what purpose they intend to use it for.

It also begs the question of whether Google should continue its quest to map out the world via Google Maps and other programs. While a simple mistake (or series of mistakes) may render the project a no-go and a huge danger/negative in the public opinion, there is something to be said about the educational and informational benefits such detailed programs provide -- such as guiding drivers through a tricky part of town, or showing people a part of the world they could never afford to go to. Internet law expert attorneys will continue to monitor the progress of programs such as Google Maps.

This post authored by Taren Fujimoto. Edited by Erik Syverson.

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