Feeds

Google KNEW Street View cars were slurping Wi-Fi

Wheels fall off 'one rogue engineer' claim

Securing Web Applications Made Simple and Scalable

Google knew its Street View cars were slurping personal data from private Wi-Fi routers for three years before the story broke in April 2010.

When the revelations were made, Google said its map service's cars were merely collecting SSIDs and MAC addresses. The following month, it said network data had been captured, but this was the work of one engineer.

Six months later Google conceded that payload data, including emails and passwords, was recorded by the roving photo-motors – but still blamed a rogue engineer.

An investigation by the Federal Communications Commission leaves no ambiguity: an engineer discussed the collection of the personal data with a senior manager, and that between May 2007 and May 2010, wireless traffic was captured by Street View cars.

“Are you saying that these are URLs that you sniffed out of Wi-Fi packets that we recorded while driving?” asks the manager, a question the engineer affirms. Both identities are concealed: the developer is referred to as "Engineer Doe".

The FCC released the full report [PDF, 4.5MB] on Saturday.

Google argued that the interception of payload data from unsecured wireless networks does not breach the Wiretap Act. The eavesdropping was not necessarily unlawful, the FCC accepts, and could not find evidence that Google had used the stored data illegally.

However, the regulator concluded that Google hobbled its investigation and fined it $25,000 for non-compliance. That's rather less than the $8.5m paid out to settle private suits over its now-abandoned Google Buzz service.

“For many months, Google deliberately impeded and delayed the bureau’s investigation by failing to respond to requests for material information and to provide certifications and verifications of its responses,” the FCC wrote.

Google asked a third-party to examine the code, and that technical report has is now publicly available. It confirms that data frames were captured from unsecured networks, and SSID and MAC addresses captured from all Wi-Fi networks found by the Kismet packet-sniffing software.

The ability to capture payload data was outlined in a design document – clearly described as “information about what they were doing”. But Engineer Doe decided that it was not a privacy concern because the Street View cars would not be “in proximity to any given user for an extended period of time” (phew) and that “[n]one of the data gathered would be presented to end users of [Google services] in raw form”.

The engineer added “discuss privacy considerations with privacy counsel” on his to-do list, but despite a line-by-line internal review of the code, no meeting ever took place.

A senior manager at Google told the FCC he pre-approved the design document before it had been written.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin recently confessed a fascinating desire to The Guardian newspaper: “If we could wave a magic wand and not be subject to US law, that would be great. If we could be in some magical jurisdiction that everyone in the world trusted, that would be great. We're doing it as well as can be done."

You can see why. Google’s rap sheet [PDF, 60KB] grows by the day – and details an impressive list of the company’s ongoing litigation on privacy, market abuse and IP abuse charges. ®

Bootnote

The FCC doesn't outline what procedures Google is taking to ensure employees and managers take greater responsibility for privacy sensitive work. The New York Times reports that Google is offering employees courses in "mindfulness" – devised by a Google engineer. Steps include "self-knowledge" and "self-mastery".

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

More from The Register

next story
BMW's ConnectedDrive falls over, bosses blame upgrade snafu
Traffic flows up 20% as motorway middle lanes miraculously unclog
Putin: Crack Tor for me and I'll make you a MILLIONAIRE
Russian Interior Ministry offers big pile o' roubles for busting pro-privacy browser
Mozilla fixes CRITICAL security holes in Firefox, urges v31 upgrade
Misc memory hazards 'could be exploited' - and guess what, one's a Javascript vuln
Manic malware Mayhem spreads through Linux, FreeBSD web servers
And how Google could cripple infection rate in a second
How long is too long to wait for a security fix?
Synology finally patches OpenSSL bugs in Trevor's NAS
Don't look, Snowden: Security biz chases Tails with zero-day flaws alert
Exodus vows not to sell secrets of whistleblower's favorite OS
Roll out the welcome mat to hackers and crackers
Security chap pens guide to bug bounty programs that won't fail like Yahoo!'s
prev story

Whitepapers

Top three mobile application threats
Prevent sensitive data leakage over insecure channels or stolen mobile devices.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
Designing a Defense for Mobile Applications
Learn about the various considerations for defending mobile applications - from the application architecture itself to the myriad testing technologies.
Build a business case: developing custom apps
Learn how to maximize the value of custom applications by accelerating and simplifying their development.