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Google 'WiSpy' incident not an accident - FCC

Google may have known it was gathering payload data from unsecured wireless networks

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Google has made public a report of the Federal Communications Commission’s probe into the payload data its Street View cars had been collecting from unprotected Wi-Fi networks, reports the Los Angeles Times.

The report is redacted, meaning names of individuals are blacked out, but it sheds light on new details and elicits more questions about  the privacy controversy - one of many the search and advertising giant seems to constantly find itself enmeshed.

For instance, Google has maintained that the personal data it collected - such as e-mails, passwords and search history - was inadvertent.

Yet the FCC’s report points to an engineer who intentionally wrote code to glean the personal data, told two other engineers what he was doing, and gave the entire Street View team a document that detailed his work on Street View including the logging of payload data.

The engineer, who has not been identified by Google, refused to speak to the FCC and invoked his Fifth Amendment right against potentially incriminating himself to do so.  In its report the FCC refers to the engineer bearing the brunt of the blame as “Engineer Doe.”

According to the FCC’s report:

“As early as 2007 and 2008, therefore, Street View team members had wide access to Engineers Doe’s Wi-Fi data collection design document and code, which revealed his plan to collect payload data. One Google engineer reviewed the code line by line to remove syntax errors and bugs, and another modified the code. Five engineers pushed the code into Street View cars, and another drafted code to extract information from the Wi-Fi data those cars were collecting. Engineer Doe specifically told two engineers working on the project, including a senior manager, about collecting payload data. Nevertheless, managers of the Street View project and other Google employees who worked on Street View have uniformly asserted in declarations and interviews  that they did not learn the Street View cars were collecting payload data until April or May 2010.”

Google is saying it didn’t give permission for the payload data gathering. It holds the same ground in similar complaints internationally.

And the FCC even admits what Google did may not be illegal. “The Wiretap Act provides, ‘It shall not be unlawful under this chapter or chapter 121 of this title for any person to intercept or access an electronic communication made through an electronic communication system that is configured so that such electronic communication is readily accessible to the general public,’” its report reads.

Even so, as PCWorld reported last week, the FCC slapped Google with a $25,000 fine for impeding the agency's investigation – a pittance considering the company is worth $200 billion (£123bn).

“While we disagree with some of the statements made in the document, we agree with the FCC’s conclusion that we did not break the law,” a Google spokesperson told VentureBeat over email. “We hope that we can now put this matter behind us.”

Consumers seem to be split when it comes to Google and privacy, at least on this matter. Some see what the company did as evidence that it will stop at nothing to garner more and more of its users’ personal data so as to better target ads to them.

Others firmly hold to the belief that if you use unsecure networks you’re practically begging to have others see your personal data and any privacy infringements that occur are your own fault.

Regardless of your view, be sure to check out the FCC report, which is posted on Scribd (PDF).


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