Google to tighten privacy policies after Wi-Fi fiasco

Google is also acknowledging it intercepted and stored the full text of e-mail messages

Under fire for months over its capture of people's Wi-Fi traffic data, Google has announced several steps aimed at preventing similar missteps in the future.

At the same time, Google is acknowledging that its inadvertent Wi-Fi snooping collected not only data fragments but entire e-mail messages, website addresses and passwords.

Google has been in hot water with privacy advocates, government agencies and concerned individuals since its disclosure in May that, since 2007, its Street View cars, in addition to taking photos for its Maps product, had also collected Wi-Fi transmission data from unencrypted networks.

Government agencies and legislators in the U.S. and abroad are investigating the issue, and a number of users have filed privacy-breach lawsuits against the company.

Google had intended the Street View cars to only grab and store open Wi-Fi networks' names (SSIDs) and their unique router numbers (MAC addresses) for use in Google location-based services.

Due to a software glitch, the Google cars intercepted and stored Web traffic data, which initially the company had said was highly fragmented, but that it now is admitting includes the full text of e-mail messages and passwords.

"It's clear from those inspections that while most of the data is fragmentary, in some instances entire emails and URLs were captured, as well as passwords," wrote Alan Eustace, senior vice president of engineering and research, in a blog post on Friday.

"We want to delete this data as soon as possible, and I would like to apologize again for the fact that we collected it in the first place. We are mortified by what happened, but confident that these changes to our processes and structure will significantly improve our internal privacy and security practices for the benefit of all our users," he wrote.

The steps Google is announcing on Friday include the appointment of Alma Whitten as privacy director overseeing both engineering and product management. For the past two years, she has been Google's privacy lead in the engineering team. Google will beef up her staff, so that more engineers and product managers are involved in privacy-protection efforts.

Google is boosting its privacy-related training, improving training for engineers, product managers and legal staffers, and requiring that starting in December all employees go through a new information security program.

In addition, compliance will also be tightened, including a provision that all engineering project leaders maintain a privacy design document for each project they're working on. "This document will record how user data is handled and will be reviewed regularly by managers, as well as by an independent internal audit team," Eustace wrote.

In addition to the Wi-Fi issue, it also recently came to light that Google fired an employee who was accessing data from teenage Gmail users.

The new measures should help cement at Google the principle of "privacy by design," so that privacy protection is front and center in the minds of all employees and there is constant vigilance, said Justin Brookman, a senior fellow at the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT).

"Google needs to create a culture of privacy protection at all levels of the company," he said.

Google generally does a good job protecting the privacy of its users, but the company's procedures in this regard need to be as strong, systemic and effective as possible, because it deals with so much consumer data.

"Google seems to be taking smart steps here that I think will help," he said.

Join the newsletter!


Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags securityprivacyinternetGooglesearch engines

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Juan Carlos Perez

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles


PCW Evaluation Team

Andrew Teoh

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

Touch screen visibility and operation was great and easy to navigate. Each menu and sub-menu was in an understandable order and category

Louise Coady

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

The printer was convenient, produced clear and vibrant images and was very easy to use

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Walid Mikhael

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

It’s easy to set up, it’s compact and quiet when printing and to top if off, the print quality is excellent. This is hands down the best printer I’ve used for printing labels.

Ben Ramsden

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

Brainstorming, innovation, problem solving, and negotiation have all become much more productive and valuable if people can easily collaborate in real time with minimal friction.

Sarah Ieroianni

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

The print quality also does not disappoint, it’s clear, bold, doesn’t smudge and the text is perfectly sized.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?