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Google Street View Wi-Fi data slurper named

Unmasked 'rogue engineer' worked on wardriving app

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The 'Engineer Doe', who designed Google's Street View Wi-Fi software to collect personal data, has been named by an American newspaper.

The engineer is reportedly Marius Milner, developer of the popular NetStumbler wardriving programme for Windows. Milner describes his occupation as a "hacker" on his LinkedIn page.

Google initially denied collecting personal information using its street-mapping camera-car fleet, then admitted it had captured unsecured Wi-Fi traffic but blamed a lone gunman slurper: a so-called "rogue engineer" who wrote the software in his "20 per cent time permitted for self-directed projects".

An investigation by the Federal Communications Commission demolished this theory, however. The FCC found Google guilty of obstructing its investigation but concluded that collecting personal data from unsecured wireless networks did not breach the US Wiretap Act.

Privacy group EPIC says the FCC report "undercuts the company's prior statements that a rogue engineer was responsible for the payload data collection".

"Instead," the organisation added, "it indicates that Google intentionally intercepted payload data for business purposes and that many supervisors and engineers within the company reviewed the code and the design documents associated with the project."

Google itself released the FCC's report into its Street View data collection activities on Saturday, with most of the details readable - some portions remain redacted. Groups including EPIC and Consumer Watchdog have filed Freedom of Information requests to access all of the documents in the case.

An independent source code analysis of the engineer's work, commissioned by Google, is now available [PDF, 486KB].

A little business context, missing from most press reports on this story, is useful to remember here. It concerns a firm called SkyHook.

SkyHook is a Boston-based company that had already compiled a nationwide database of Wi-Fi access points. The biz merely collected SSID and signal strength - not personal data. SkyHook's database was used by licensees of Google's Android operating system for locations services. Eighteen months ago, SkyHook filed a suit claiming that Google had strong-armed Android licensees to use Google's location database instead of SkyHook's.

Far from being the work of a "lone slurper" tinkering in his own time, the software could be seen as creating an essential component of the Street View software stack. Google's Wi-Fi access point database was considered to be of enormous strategic significance.

Google's strategy after the data-slurp is proving to be much more interesting than the actual packet sniff. ®

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