Google said Friday that the search engine company's Street View service had accidentally been swiping bits and pieces of people's online activities over the past four years, which were accessible via unsecured Wi-Fi networks.
Apparently Google unintentionally picked up the random data transmitted via wireless networks, such as e-mails and Web addresses, while its cars were perusing and photographing the streets for its Street View service, Reuters reports.
Google's Street View, which gives users a 180 degree view of neighborhoods around the world, is known for its cars and vans that can be seen driving the globe and taking pictures of the city streets, which are also displayed in its Google Maps service.
Google said that the data collection was unrelated to the Google Maps project, but was conducted in an effort to collect data on WiFi hotspots that can be used to provide separate location-based services.
"It's now clear that we have been mistakenly collecting samples of payload data from open (i.e. non-password-protected) WiFi networks," said Alan Eustace, Google senior vice president of engineering and research in a company blog post on Friday.
Google executives said that it unintentionally grabbed users' data when it unknowingly incorporated a piece of computer code that was included from an experimental project. Company executives said it became aware of the error in the last week.
Google said that it only recently discovered it had acquired about 600 gigabytes of data transmitted via public Wi-Fi networks since 2006 in more than 30 countries, but that none of the information was made public on search engines or other applications.
Security experts have noted that most non-Web based e-mail products don't encrypt e-mail messages or log-in credentials. Meanwhile, in recent months Google has started to embed encrypted into the e-mail messages of its own Web-based mail service, Gmail, after users sign on.
The search engine giant is currently in touch with regulators in several countries, including the U.S., Germany, France, Brazil and Hong Kong, about how to dispose of the data, which company executives contend was never used in its products and services.
Meanwhile, this latest breach will likely raise strong concerns from users and privacy rights organizations regarding the security accessibility of their personal information.