Google has apologised for grabbing fragments of people's online activities on public Wi-Fi networks

Google has apologised for grabbing fragments of people's online activities on public Wi-Fi networks

Internet search leader Google has apologised for grabbing fragments of people's online activities broadcast over public Wi-Fi networks over a four-year period.

The breach of web etiquette is likely to raise more privacy worries about the company, which issued a public apology on Friday.

Google said it only recently discovered the problem in response to an inquiry from German regulators.

"Maintaining people's trust is crucial to everything we do, and in this case we fell short," Alan Eustace, Google's top engineering executive, wrote in a blog post.

Google described its collection of snippets from emails and web surfing done on public Wi-Fi networks as a mistake and said it has taken steps to avoid a recurrence.

About 600 gigabytes of data was taken off the Wi-Fi networks in more than 30 countries. Google said it plans to delete it all as soon as it gains clearance from government authorities.

None of the information had appeared in Google's search engine or other services, according to Mr Eustace, but Google's decision to hold on to the Wi-Fi data until it hears from regulators shows the company realises it could face legal repercussions.

At the very least, company officials concede that snooping on Wi-Fi networks, however inadvertent, crossed an ethical line. "We are acutely aware that we failed badly here," Mr Eustace wrote.

But Google's contrition may not be enough to allay growing concerns about whether the company can be trusted with the vast storehouse of personal information that it has gathered through its search engine, email and other services.

Fears that Google is morphing into a real-life version of Big Brother has spurred previous privacy complaints, as well as pleas for more stringent regulation of the company. Consumer Watchdog, a group that has become one of Google's most outspoken critics, renewed its call for a regulatory crackdown.