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Google Says It Never Used Wi-Fi Information

June 12, 2010

After announcing that it accidentally collected data over non-encrypted Wi-Fi networks from more than 30 countries over several years, Google is now telling lawmakers that it never examined or made use of any of the information gathered.

In a letter to three key members of the House Commerce Committee, Google apologized for collecting pieces of emails, search requests and other online activities over open Wi-Fi networks.

The company gathered the data while photographing neighborhoods using its Street View mapping services. Google maintained that it was only trying to gather information about the location and strength of Wi-Fi configurations so it could improve the accuracy of location-based services.

Google’s director of public policy, Pablo Chavez, wrote in the letter that the collection of personal information gathered “was a mistake.”

Google’s letter was a response to an inquiry by Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Massachusetts Democrat Edward Markey, a key member of the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet. Google also addressed the letter to Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, who was not involved in the inquiry.

The internet search giant said the collection of data over Wi-Fi networks and the Street View photographs are two separate efforts, even though the Street View cars were used as a platform for Wi-Fi equipment. It said it stopped grabbing the data from its Street View cars once it discovered the problem last month following an inquiry by German regulators.

Google also made clear in the letter that any personal information accidentally gathered was “not used to identify any specific individual or household” and was only stored in binary form.

Google added that the data was never used in any “Google product or service, nor do we intend to use it.”

Google also said that it is aware of only two company engineers who have even seen the data: one was the engineer who designed the software, and the other is the engineer who tested the data that had been collected after the company learned of the issue.

Google has deleted data that came from Ireland, Denmark and Austria at the request of the authorities in those countries. It is still retaining data collected in the United States to comply with a court order stemming from pending civil litigation.

Google’s explanations did not do enough to appease Barton and Markey, who have called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the company’s actions.

“Google now confesses it has been collecting people’s information for years, yet claims they still do not know exactly what they collected and who was vulnerable,” Barton said in a statement. “This is deeply troubling for a company that bases its business model on gathering consumer data.” 

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