Commentary

Google Didn't Collect 'Meaningful' Personal Information From WiFi Users In U.K.

Authorities in the U.K.'s Information Commissioner's Office say that Google gathered only "fragments of content" and not "meaningful personal details that could be linked to an identifiable person" when its Street View cars collected payload data from unsecured WiFi networks.

"On the basis of the samples we saw we are satisfied so far that it is unlikely that Google will have captured significant amounts of personal data," the office said in a statement. "There is also no evidence as yet that the data captured by Google has caused or could cause any individual detriment."

The U.K. authorities say they only saw samples of information gathered in the U.K., and can't reach any conclusions about whether Google collected more extensive data elsewhere.

But Google itself said last month that it believed it had captured only fragments of data in the U.S. "Because Google Street View cars are on the move and the WiFi equipment automatically changes channels five times per second (and because WiFi frequency bands include 11 channels in the U.S.), we believe any payload data collected would likely be fragmented," the company said in a letter to Congress.

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In the U.S., in addition to the congressional probe, Google also is defending itself in a slew of lawsuits alleging that the company violated WiFi users' privacy. What's more, Google is facing a 38-state probe led by Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who recently demanded answers to a host of questions, including whether Google tested Street View software.

"We are asking Google to identify specific individuals responsible for the snooping code and how Google was unaware that this code allowed the Street View cars to collect data broadcast over WiFi networks," Blumenthal said in a statement. "Information we are awaiting includes how the spy software was included in Google's Street View network and specific locations where unauthorized data collection occurred."

For its part, while Google has apologized for the data collection, the company also says that it did nothing illegal.

Even if that turns out to be so, Google's misstep here -- combined with the botched launch of Google Buzz (which initially disclosed information about some users' email contacts) -- raises questions about what other privacy breaches could ensue.

With Google in a position to glean tremendous amounts of information about Web users -- including potentially, details about the books they read online -- the company might need to do more to reassure users and lawmakers that it respects people's privacy.

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