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updated 7/28/2011 10:49:37 AM ET 2011-07-28T14:49:37

Google's Street View cars are again driving down a dangerous road regarding personal privacy.

France's national data-protection commission confirmed to CNET that the cars collected the locations and unique network-hardware IDs of millions of laptops, cell phones and other Wi-Fi devices such as iPhones, iPads and Android smartphones.

Google then put this information online so that anyone could find it. (It's recently taken it offline.)

The Street View cars were meant to harvest only the locations and unique hardware IDs — called MAC addresses — of Wi-Fi access points, so that non-GPS-enabled devices could approximate their locations on Google Maps by seeing what Wi-Fi access points were nearby.

But the software that recorded the location of each Wi-Fi access point also recorded the Wi-Fi MAC address of every smartphone, tablet or laptop connected to that access point.

Whether by accident or by design, Google didn't separate the two categories. Instead, all the findings went into the same publicly accessible database.

That means that if you regularly use the Wi-Fi hotspot at the South Succotash Starbucks, where you meet your secret lover, your jealous spouse could look up your smartphone's Wi-Fi MAC address and see that you'd been there.

In late June, Google, in an effort to limit the exposure of MAC addresses to the public, changed how its database processes location requests, CNET said.

CNET believes that Google's collection of the MAC addresses was the result of a simple "accident of programming."

Google came under fire last year when it was found that Street View cars accidentally collected personal e-mails and passwords from home Wi-Fi networks.

The real MAC-Coy

Network-capable electronic devices capable of accessing the Internet have unique Media Access Control numbers, or MAC addresses, on each piece of networking hardware.

A laptop with Ethernet, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth will have three MAC addresses, one for each card or chip that connects it to other devices.

A smartphone will usually have two, for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. (Some "4G" cellular wireless chips use them as well.)

MAC addresses generally look like this -- 1a:2b:3c:4d:5e:6f – where the digits 0-9 and the letters A-F represent the hexadecimal (base 16) numbers zero through 15.

The first three pairs of numbers identify the maker or vendor of the networking device. Many large companies have many vendor "prefixes" – for example, Apple has dozens.

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