Google reversed course on Friday and admitted it had accidentally collected information sent over unsecured wireless networks in homes it had photographed for its Street View service.
Google photographs homes from public streets, using a fleet of company cars.
To better pinpoint addresses for people using Google’s location services, the cars also harvest data from wireless networks in the homes, provided they had not been secured by passwords.
The leading internet company said it had just discovered that it also had
been inadvertently collecting snippets of e-mails and other internet activity within those homes.
The data had never been used in any Google products and would not have been visible to any outsiders, executives said.
Google blamed a programming error and apologised, grounding the vehicles temporarily and announcing that it would stop collecting all WiFi data.
The company’s confession, which contradicts a denial on the same point late last month, is certain to anger regulators, who only recently learned that the cars supporting Google’s Street View imaging were collecting any WiFi data at all, let alone contents of internet use.
“Quite simply it was a mistake,” Google’s senior vice-president Alan Eustace wrote in a public blog post.
He said the offending code was written in 2006 and included in the full-scale operation without the knowledge of the project’s leaders.
“We are profoundly sorry for this error and are determined to learn all the lessons we can from our mistake”, Mr Eustace wrote.
Google began briefing regulators in multiple countries on Friday and said it would delete the content with their approval.
Only last month, Google conceded it had been compiling an internal listing of the electronic addresses of unsecured WiFi routers in order to improve its location-based services.
Other companies compile similar data on router addresses. Google said it would buy from third parties in the future.
The company also said it had determined that it had the more sensitive data after privacy officials in Germany upset about the address collection asked more questions.