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Google street view car collected private data

John Moe Apr 30, 2012

David Brancaccio: When it came out that Google was gathering data from people’s wifi links as it cruised the streets mapping the neighborhood, Google blamed a lone engineer. The Federal Communications Commission has now looked into this and it wasn’t just one guy.

Joining us live is my colleague John Moe of the Marketplace Tech Report, hello John.

John Moe: Hello David.

Brancaccio: What did this report say about Google, actually?

Moe: Well, the report indicates that there was an engineer at Google who designed a feature in the software on the street view cars to collect data on home wifi networks. And that this was not accidental — it was a deliberate thing; this engineer wanted to gather material in case it could be useful for other Google products.

The issue here is who else knew about it. The engineer apparently told two other engineers about it, and gave documentation on it to everyone working on street view. People working on the street view project say they didn’t know about it; that they might have gotten that documentaion, but they never found that particular notation that this was going on.

Brancaccio: So clearly a learning experience for Google — will this in fact change the way Google deals with privacy?

Moe: Google’s always dealing with privacy issues, and I think like a lot of companies, they’re trying to be more transparent and explicit about it. You’ll probably see more of that in the future. But there are a lot of benefits to giving up some of your privacy for Google products. And I think that’s something that they’re trying to balance; they’re trying to educate people about. Because Google knows where I live, so when I search for pizza, I get pizza in places near my house instead of in Alberquerque. We make those tradeoffs all the time — but I think as the company grows and expands into new areas, I think there’s going to be a lot more emphasis on: Here’s what we’re doing with your data; here’s what we’ve gathered; here’s what we know about you.

Brancaccio: Google’s been emphasizing that the report didn’t find that it did anything illegal here. But of course, it has it’s unofficial mission statement: “Don’t Be Evil.” Did Google do something evil here?

Moe: Right. Well, you know, again, “evil” is in the eye of the beholder — I probably was “evil” ten times on my way into work today. But you know, it is worth noting that the data here was on unsecured networks; it was essentially being broadcast, as if a loud party’s going on at your house and somebody’s recording it out on the street.

But it’s another wake-up call to everybody: Protect your data, secure your networks.

Brancaccio: A little bit of encryption. John Moe, host of the Marketplace Tech Report. John, thanks.

Moe: Thanks David.

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