Google Street View cars are at the center of a brand new privacy scandal after it was revealed that the search giant collected the street addresses and unique identifying information for millions of laptops, media players, and other wireless devices. And until recently, the data was available to anyone who put in the right Google search.
The story emerged when the French data protection authority, known as the Commission Nationale de l'Informatique et des Libertés (CNIL), contacted our colleagues at CNET to confirm that its investigation had turned up the Street View cars' questionable data collection practices. Back in March, CNIL fined Google 100,000 Euros, or $143,000, but at that time it was unclear if the issue extended to client devices.
CNET's own investigation, published Monday, has the complete details on the history and context of this issue, including a list of questions that Google spokespeople have yet to answer. It's well worth a read for any dedicated follower of Google's privacy struggles.
But the really salient points are that Google has been collecting this data despite an earlier public statement claiming that "we collect the publicly broadcast MAC addresses of Wi-Fi access points." There's no opt-out method. And as noted above, the data was available through the Google search engine until late June.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the location information collection was uneven at best, with some users poking into the database only to find that their location data is sometimes years out of date. That suggests that the location logging wasn't systematic.
The simplest explanation is likely also the closest to the truth: Just as Google Street View cars accidentally grabbed unencrypted Wi-Fi traffic, leading to a privacy scandal and lawsuits a-plenty, the search company probably gathered this data by accident - a supposition backed up by the incompleteness of the location database. Regardless, the legality of Google's data collection is definitely in doubt.
Google's troubles in this area brings to mind the iPhone tracking scandal, which resulted in headline-making legal headaches for Apple. And I wouldn't be surprised if this issue brought a whole new slate of class action suits to Google's desk.