[LINK] Google's WiFi bungle

Craig Sanders cas at taz.net.au
Wed May 19 10:50:38 AEST 2010

On Tue, May 18, 2010 at 10:11:15PM +1000, Richard Chirgwin wrote:
> There is a behavioural issue here, on the part of Google: it does, by
> reflex, live by an attitude that it's better to seek forgiveness than
> to ask permission.

garbage. for that argument to fly, you first have to establish that they
knowingly and deliberately did something wrong.

AFAICT, from what i've read, they didn't.  They scanned for local WIFI
networks as they drove along. something that many thousands of people
do - pretty much anyone with a wifi device like a smartphone in their
pocket. it's not unusual, it's not even wrong. it's how wifi devices
locate public networks and hotspots to attach to.

there are numerous web sites which index publicly available wifi
networks to make it easier for people to find good locations to use
their laptops, smart-phones, etc. cross-referencing that kind of
information with a mapping service like google maps is actually a useful
service. it tells people that they can, for example, find an open
hotspot within 200 metres of cafe X on street Y in city Z.

When they found that they'd picked up more data than they expected or
wanted, they deleted it.

There ARE serious privacy problems with many of google's activities
(Google Mail and Google Docs horrify me from a privacy perspective, for
example. and Google search too if you don't use a browser plugin to mess
with their cookies and google's ads if you don't block google-analytics
javascript. just for starters) but this is not one of them.  This is the
high-tech equivalent of accusing someone of being a peeping tom because
they walked along a public street with their eyes open and someone ran
out naked onto the road. it's bullshit.

> The problem with how you explain your attitudes to privacy is that it 
> sounds like a sophistry for blaming the victim. If the victim didn't 
> understand *all* of the risks to their privacy, it's not Google's 
> problem, it's the people whose networks were snooped.

you know, you're full of shit when you try to describe my attitude to

> The bits of the Google explanation that I specifically disbelieve are:
> 1. "We didn't know it was going on." Bullshit. The people who used the
> code written by someone else in the same company didn't hear words to
> the effect of "Oh, and you'll love this bit, I only need a few seconds
> to grab real packets of real user data." I don't believe for a second
> that the users of the software had no idea what it was collecting,
> even if the Google lawyers and PRs offer to drown themselves if
> they're wrong.

the point you are missing is that if you are scanning for networks on a
broadcast medium like wifi, YOU CAN NOT AVOID PICKING UP MORE DATA THAN
YOU WANT. it's all broadcast. you have to filter out the crap that you
don't want. getting the filter right is ALWAYS going to be an iterative
process because you don't know exactly what kind of garbage is going to
be there until you start collecting it. separating the signal from the
noise is harder (actually a tedious, time-consuming, and mostly manual
process rather than difficult) than you think.

getting the data you want is like trying to pick out just one useful
word in a thousand from a hundred people all shouting with megaphones.

and, again, it's like walking along with your eyes open. if something
is there in the open to see and you happen to see it, have you done
anything wrong?

maybe when you have some understanding of how wifi technology works,
your refusal to believe certain things might carry some weight. but for
now, it's just another ignorant opinion. and while the ignorant have a
right to have their own opinion, they don't have the right to expect
that it will be accorded the same weight as the opinion of someone who
actually knows what they're talking about.

> I *can* see the beat-up aspects of the story. But just because some 
> pieces of a story get exaggerated doesn't mean there's no story.

it does if you bother to look behind the exaggerated bullshit and find

> My original query, I will remark, was about what I thought (and was 
> corrected) was an inconsistency in the Google explanation.  I wasn't 
> much buying into the main thread of the story, but since it's inspiring 
> such strength of feeling, I may as well join the cacophony. 

and that's what i'm objecting to. berate google all you want for their
REAL privacy-infringing activities but by making a big fuss over
irrelevant crap like this you just create the impression that anyone who
complains about google and privacy is an ignorant nutter with an axe to
grind rather than someone with a legitimate, well-founded complaint.

it's why seriously crackpot conspiracy theories get so much airtime -
it hides the real conspiracies in all the lunatic noise....and makes
it easier to paint whistle-blowers as crackpots. it's got to the point
where even using the word conspiracy automatically labels you as a


craig sanders <cas at taz.net.au>

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