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Google's Street View broke Canadian privacy laws

Password-slurping operation was work of one (creative) engineer's code

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The Canadian privacy watchdog today said Google's Street View fleet broke the law when it collected payload data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks.

An investigation by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, one of dozens launched around the world earlier this year, also found the practice was the result of a single Google engineer's "careless error", as well as a wider lack of controls at the firm.

In some cases, Street View cars intercepted entire emails, said Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart.

Google also grabbed passwords, phone numbers and home addresses, the investigation found, based on a sample of data examined at the firm's Mountain View HQ. It was not possible to determine how many Canadians were affected in total.

According to the commissioner, the data-harvesting operation was the product of a single engineer's "20 per cent time", when staff are encouraged to pursue projects outside their normal work. When Google decided to deploy the code to map Wi-Fi networks in the real world, the unnamed individual identified "superficial privacy implications", but did not send his designs to lawyers for review, contrary to company policy.

"This incident was the result of a careless error – one that could easily have been avoided," said Stoddart.

She did not announce any punitive measures, but recommended Google should destroy the data, tighten its privacy governance processes, and improve privacy training for its employees. The investigation will be closed in February next year, subject to confirmation Google has taken those actions. ®

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