U.S. Internet company Google says it "mistakenly" collected private data from wireless networks while mapping and photographing city streets around the world.
In a corporate blog posted Friday, Google said the high-tech cars used for its "Street View" mapping service were accidentally programmed to gather the private information.
Google's equipment only copied data from networks that were "open," without passwords or other restrictions on access.
The company did not specify what information it collected from the Wi-Fi networks. It could have included e-mails and addresses, or details about the websites people are viewing.
Germany's consumer protection minister (Ilse Aigner) called the revelation "alarming," and accused Google of breaking privacy laws.
Google senior vice president Alan Eustace said the company is "profoundly sorry" for the error, and that it is working with regulators around the world to dispose of the collected data.
Google says it grounded its Street View cars when it became aware of the problem.
German authorities have voiced privacy concern before about Google's mapping service, which makes available panoramic images of people's homes and neighborhoods.
Eustace says Google believed it was only collecting publicly available Wi-Fi data such as network names and router numbers. The company uses that data for such purposes as enabling mobile phone users to approximate their location using the networks around them rather than GPS.
Eustace says Google first became aware that it was collecting private information earlier this month when the data protection authority in Hamburg, Germany, asked the company to audit the data it was collecting.
Google "Street View" offers maps of cities around the world, mostly in the United States and Europe. It also has maps of South Africa, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
Some information for this report was provided by AFP and Reuters.