Friday, May 4, 2012

Google … evil?

According to a recent story, federal investigators are revisiting the question of whether Google Street View did anything wrong when they captured individuals’ WiFi data in the process of taking pictures the view along every inch of the worlds’ roads and streets.

To refresh, Google drives around in funny looking cars with posts sticking out of the roof. On these posts are cameras looking in every direction taking pictures of what you’d see if you were driving down this street. When you’re looking at Google Maps, click on the little guy above the scale slider. These cars also collected data on all the WiFi routers they could detect from the street. Their mobile GPS service can triangulate off these radio signals to give you a more accurate location, just like your cell phone company can find you from which towers are picking you up. In the process of fingerprinting WiFi signals, they also “inadvertently” recorded the data that was being broadcast.

If they scanned through the petabytes of data they might have collected, would they find anything interesting about you? Probably not. Did they steal your banking password? Definitely not. Was this illegal? In my opinion, not under US law. Is Google evil? That’s a point of opinion.

Technical discussion

How does it work?

A WiFi router can be identified by its name and radio channel. You have to verify this information when you go to a friend’s house so you use his internet and not a neighbor’s. By accurately knowing the car’s location, and monitoring the signal’s strength as it moves, Google can get a good feel for where your router is located. Since in most neighborhoods you can detect signals from several to many routers it’s easy to determine where you are; even if it’s not strong enough to get online.

What did they record?

Allegedly, in the process of collecting identifying details, they also recorded everything that was in the air as they went by. The cars are driving down the public street, not doing anything to intentionally invade anyone’s privacy. What they got was snippets of electronic conversations, just as if you were to cruise through a cocktail party in Tokyo.

Would they find anything interesting about you?

Firstly, you’re only picking up a couple sentences from any one in particular so you may hear them asking for another drink or even just stuttering a couple words – nothing malicious there. Plus, most people are speaking a foreign language – just like most WiFi connections are encrypted with their security password.

Did they steal your banking password?

Even more secure than your protected WiFi signal, not only financial sites; but every reputable site uses SSL (https) at least for password protected signs. Services like gMail, Twitter, or Facebook also are or can be accessed through secure SSL.

Was this illegal?

For the life of the wireless industry the rule has been that any signal accessible on the public airwaves is fair game. As long as they don’t try to invade your computer or decrypt or make fraudulent use of what they hear, listening in and recording it is not illegal. Think of the decades of big satellite dishes along rural highways just grabbing the networks’ unscrambled feeds or the celebrities whose cordless (not cell) calls got exposed.

Is Google evil?

Maybe, but not for this misdemeanor. I am much more concerned that my ISP might throttle my internet just because I’m a heavy user. Or that Hollywood is trying to get a fishing license to track down and prosecute anyone for a single, possibly illicit, song or video. Or that the NSA is analyzing a yottabyte (1,000 times the entre global internet traffic for a year) in a $2 billion bunker in Utah.

Let’s give Google a pass this time. And take it as a reminder to be sure your WiFi connection is protected with WPA and a good password.

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