Lies, spies, and Wi-Fi: Google fesses up

Google admits it knowingly gathered sensitive data from unprotected Wi-Fi networks with Street View and did nothing to stop it. The FCC fine: Pocket change

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Now of course we have the FCC report on the matter, which concludes that, yet again, Google was lying. According to Google's internal documents, the engineer who developed the software Google used to ping unprotected Wi-Fi networks designed it for scooping up this data and even acknowledged that privacy might be a concern (but not enough of one to ever consult with Google's in-house counsel). So much for the "oops" defense. Per the FCC report:

Engineer Doe intended to collect, store, and analyze payload data from unencrypted Wi-Fi networks. ... In a discussion of "Privacy Considerations," the design document states, "A typical concern might be that we are logging user traffic along with sufficient data to precisely triangulate their position at a given time, along with information about what they were doing."

What kind of "user traffic" did that Google spyware uncover? Oh, just names, phone numbers, mailing addresses, IP addresses, entire email messages, cookies, chat sessions, search terms, medical information, passwords, snippets of video and audio files, and log-ins to dating networks and porn sites.

That information, by the way, comes from investigations by governments in Canada, France, and the Netherlands. Google wouldn't allow the FCC to look at the data it collected, and the FCC dropped the matter. (If you want an argument for EU-style privacy laws, I can't think of a better one.)

That wasn't the only time Google was uncooperative. Per the report, Google dragged its feet for years and produced the bare minimum information required, removing the names of all the relevant personnel. It appears that Google still respects the privacy of its own employees, if not the world's citizens.

Despite all of this Google is still clinging to the Sergeant Schultz defense, claiming it knew nothink until May 2010. Why? Apparently its Street View team didn't read the emails detailing the Wi-Fi spying; didn't notice what information the software was collecting, even after going line by line through the code several times and testing it thoroughly; and didn't remember discussing it with Engineer Doe when he brought it up in conversations with two of his bosses or when he asked Google's search team if they could use any of the data he'd collected. (They said no.)

For these crimes, the FCC fined Google the kingly sum of $25,000 -- or about the amount of spare change CEO Larry Page keeps in his pocket to pay parking meters -- mostly for failing to respond to its inquiries in a complete and timely manner.

Now there's an effective deterrent.

Who's to blame here? Clearly Google believes it can do whatever it wants with our data and get away with it. Just as clearly, the FCC is either feebler -- or more corrupt -- than it looks. But we who depend on Google for our searching/email/document/blogging yadda yadda needs are also to blame. Because if we don't punish Google for its bad behavior, who else will?

How should Google pay for playing the spying game? Post your thoughts below or email me:

This article, "Lies, spies, and Wi-Fi: Google fesses up," was originally published at Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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