In a surprising admission, Google admitted that they’re still holding some of the “stolen” wi-fi data acquired by their StreetView cars. Although they’ve attempted to mitigate this fact by stating it’s actually a small portion of what was originally gleaned illegally, reaction hasn’t been particularly charitable.

Google Streetview Camera Car

Google’s controversial StreetView data logging has become a drama that may dwarf even Coronation Street!

Google’s Great Wi-Fi Data Theft

Initial controversy regarding Street View began when it was realised that images of public drunkenness (including urination), arrests, the location of domestic violence shelters and people leaving places such as adult theatres was likely to be published online. Other concerns centred on images of military bases (which included the British SAS base in Credenhill, despite the Regiment’s presence in Hereford being far from secret) potentially revealing locations and possibly “secret details”. In most (if not all) cases, Google complied and removed such information.
A short time later, it was revealed that the Streetview cars had obtained the details of “open” (unencrypted) wi-fi hotspots. Although admissions in April 2010 claimed that this data was harvested “by accident”, revelations soon surfaced that the software was devised by an engineer in 2006, and had been recording such data for years. It’s also believed that e-mails were downloaded, violating some people’s privacy.

The resulting enquiries, including those by the Information Commissioner in the UK, didn’t do too much damage initially, however Google were ordered to delete this data. Their admission on July 27th that some of this data still existed added further fuel to the pyre. Sceptics and opponents of Google and their “Do No Evil” motto will be quick to jump on this admission, also using it to attack the ICO’s perceived lack of action the first time.

Why Would Google Steal Data?

Many companies who offer open wi-fi hotspots, or those accessible through a simple registration process stood to gain from the public knowing where these hotspots can be found (Tesco & McDonalds make it clear that free wi-fi is available in their UK locations).

However, by logging the location of private wi-fi locations, by which I mean households and businesses who restrict access to residents and/or employees, Google had the potential to use the absolute mountain of data to potentially target mobile phone adverts, and perhaps even create new products based on this data. See Jason Lewis’ article in the Daily Mail from 2010.

Those of us with Android smartphones will know that location-based apps like Google Maps recommends switching on wi-fi to aid location plotting – by matching the strength of mapped wifi locations to approximate locations.

Whilst some organisations such as Experian Hitwise record the web-surfing behaviour of the population, and make this data available to fee-paying customers to shape their online marketing, that data is anonymous (in most cases, data only identifies the town/region, and the age bracket that the registered ISP customers fall into) and says little more. By knowing the browsing habits of those at a specific address, the value is obvious.

Had this data-gathering remained within Google’s walls, I suspect that use of it would have needed to be extremely careful. If they’d suddenly created a product that appealed so specifically to the public, Brin, Page and Schmidt would hardly be able to claim that crystal balls were being issued to in-house clairvoyants…

And let’s not even try to imagine the furore if the login details of private broadband routers had been hacked and published online…

Rumours, Allegations & Conspiracy Theories

So far, nobody has proven that any data that Google took from UK residents has ever been used. In other countries, however, investigations have shown that some very specific personal data was recorded – and of course that poses the question of why would this data be harvested, if not to be used or sold?

Some have already drawn parallels with the Phone Hacking Scandal, citing a link between David Cameron and Google (through the wife of one of his former advisors, Steve Hilton, and a number of meetings between Cameron & Google). The blatant rumour here being that some senior Ministers at “UK, plc” may have known that our data was up to the highest bidder. The Tin-Foil Hat Crew will doubtless have connected the dots and assumed that Whitehall would use the data in the pursuit of a Big Brother-style data repository on us.

If Google StreetView perfects mind-reading, will this become essential fashion?