[LINK] Google's WiFi bungle

Stilgherrian stil at stilgherrian.com
Wed May 19 07:22:41 AEST 2010

On 18/05/2010, at 10:58 PM, <community at thoughtmaybe.com> <community at thoughtmaybe.com> wrote:
> What? How can Google be the "good guys" here -- I mean, how can you 
> "inadvertantly" collect wi-fi info including *the payload* by accident? This 
> is simply a whitewashed PR lie. You can't do this "inadvertantly". It's done 
> on purpose *for* a purpose -- whatever that may be and of course Google is 
> not going to tell you the real reason. To do this in *the first place* is 
> not being a "good guy" at all -- even if you make up some excuse and admit 
> it publicly after the fact. 

Knowing how projects tend to get done in big corporations, I don't see "inadvertent" as being particularly unlikely.

Capturing the SSIDs of Wi-Fi networks was deliberate, sure. That's how the the Google Maps application for mobile devices works when not using GPS. What was inadvertent was the capturing of extra stuff and keeping it.

I'm guessing that the Google mapping vehicles just capture and log the data (photos, GPS coordinates, Wi-Fi access point identification data), and it's analysed back at Google HQ later. I also imagine the task of writing the capture code was given to a relatively junior programmer who may have captured more than was strictly necessary to produce the map of Wi-Fi networks. I'm guessing that junior programmers tend not to understand privacy issue very well.

Personally I don't think mapping the SSIDs of Wi-Fi networks is a breach of privacy, since it IS broadcast information and it isn't personally identifiable in and of itself. Opinions may differ on that, but I reckon that if Google doesn't pass on that data to third parties then all is well. My understanding is that if you use the related feature of the Google Maps application, your mobile device tells Google what Wi-Fi networks it can see an Google tell you your location.

Why I think Google are being good guys here is that when they discovered a problem they owned up to it and apologised. This is something we want companies to do, I reckon.

If a company owns up to a mistake and then we hit them with a big stick, they'll be reluctant to own up again and more likely to hide future mistakes instead.

If we want to have a go at someone for breaching privacy, or even have a go at Google, then I reckon there are many, many other more important issues to use as a stick.


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