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 email messages, website addresses, and passwords.

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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 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.

"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.


Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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