If Google were a hacker, it'd be going to prison

Instead, the megarich megacorp pays piddling price for Wi-Fi cyber spying, and corporate accountability remains MIA

Once again justice has been served. We all can breathe a little easier, confident that truth, honesty, and the American way will carry the day and bad guys will eventually get their comeuppance. Also: Unicorns are real. Pass it on.

Yesterday, 38 state attorneys general and Google reached an agreement regarding Google's Wi-Fi spying debacle. The search/ad/surveillance giant admitted that its Street View Vans slurped up 600GB of user data from unprotected Wi-Fi networks and agreed to pay a fine of $7 million. That works out to roughly 74 minutes' worth of revenue to the $50 billion company, or about 11 cents per megabyte slurped.

[ Cringely follows the money: What's your privacy worth? For Google, chump change | E.U. to Microsoft: Brother, can you spare a dime? | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

I understand Google is taking this fine very seriously. As I write this, teams of Google interns are holding a bake sale to pay it.

As corporate malfeasance goes, the Wi-Fi spy case far exceeds Microsoft's $732 million failure to offer a choice of browser with Windows 7 or even Google's $22.5 million browser trick, ignoring the privacy settings of Safari users in order to better serve them ads.

To recap: In April 2010, Google flatly denied scooping up Wi-Fi data from unencrypted networks. About two weeks later, it admitted to slurping data but said it was "a mistake" and that no data that could identify individuals had been captured. A few months after that, Google admitted that entire email messages, passwords, and URLs had been captured and stored. The company said it was purely the act of a rogue engineer acting alone, which no one else knew anything about. Nearly two years later, a heavily redacted FCC report revealed that the so-called rogue engineer deliberately designed the software to scoop up data and told his supervisors about it at least twice, but they did nothing.

Now Google is saying gosh, darn, we're sorry for stealing data from people's Wi-Fi networks while snapping photos of their homes. Please accept these Domino's Pizza coupons and a half-eaten roll of peppermint Lifesavers as a token of our extreme culpability.

The last few times I wrote about this topic it sparked a lively debate over whether capturing radio signals broadcast unwittingly from one's home constitutes a violation of privacy. Shouldn't users know that an unsecured Wi-Fi router will do that?

I hold that it does violate someone's privacy. For one, most people don't understand how Wi-Fi routers work, just like they may not understand how cellphones work. Unlike the early days of computing, a deep understanding of technology is not a prerequisite to taking advantage of the wonders it can bring, nor should it be.

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