The Internet giant said it was "profoundly sorry for this error," which is likely to intensify criticism of "Street View" expressed by privacy advocates and officials in a number of countries.
Google said it was ending the collection of WiFi network information entirely by the Street View cars which have been used in over 30 nations.
It was also taking steps to delete the private data, which was scooped up as the cars drove around taking photographs and gathering publicly broadcast WiFi information for mobile versions of the online mapping service.
Street View, which is available for the United States and certain countries in Africa, Asia and Europe, allows users to view panoramic street scenes on Google Maps and "walk" through cities such as New York, Paris or Hong Kong.
Amid concerns that thieves could use pictures of private houses to gain access and that photos of people were being published without their consent, Street View already automatically blurs faces and car registration plates.
The collection of WiFi network information by Street View, which was launched in 2006, has also been controversial, particularly in Germany.
Google had insisted previously that it was only gathering publicly broadcast information such as a WiFi network name and a MAC address, the unique number given to a device like a WiFi router.
"It's now clear that we have been mistakenly collecting samples of payload data from open (ie non-password-protected) WiFi networks," Alan Eustace, Google senior vice president for engineering and research, said in a blog post.
Eustace said a coding error was responsible for the collection of personal data sent by people over unsecured WiFi networks.
He said Google discovered that personal wireless data had been collected a week ago following a request for information from the Data Protection Authority in Hamburg, Germany.
"As soon as we became aware of this problem, we grounded our Street View cars and segregated the data on our network, which we then disconnected to make it inaccessible," he said.
"We want to delete this data as soon as possible, and are currently reaching out to regulators in the relevant countries about how to quickly dispose of it," Eustace said.
"Given the concerns raised, we have decided that it's best to stop our Street View cars collecting WiFi network data entirely," he added.
Eustace said personal wireless data was mistakenly collected only from unsecured, or non-password-protected WiFi networks, and "we never used that data in any Google products."
"Maintaining people's trust is crucial to everything we do, and in this case we fell short," he said. "The engineering team at Google works hard to earn your trust — and we are acutely aware that we failed badly here.
"We are profoundly sorry for this error and are determined to learn all the lessons we can from our mistake."
A Google spokesperson said that about 600 gigabytes of personal information had been gathered, roughly the amount as in a standard computer harddrive.
Eustace said the data was just fragments. "Because our cars are on the move, someone would need to be using the network as a car passed by, and our in-car WiFi equipment automatically changes channels roughly five times a second," he said.
Google said Street View cars have been collecting WiFi data in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Britain, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Macau, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan and the United States.
afp 15 May 2010
Yet another means of cataloging the world's population.
There was NO MISTAKE made. Cars fitted with WiFi Sniffing (War Driving) equipment have that sole purpose to acquire data from wireless networks, which , is totally different from video / picture capturing hardware.
This move was DELIBERATELY made.
There is NO GUARANTEE that the information will be deleted.
Google one of the world's largest data aquisition companies.
A move supported by governments in keeping tabs on the masses.