Google’s Snooping Snopes

Much hoopla is being made in the media about Google’s so-called “snooping” on wireless networks (Wi-Fi) in various countries, with government agencies calling for investigations into Google, and grabs at more power by “enhancing” so-called privacy laws.

For some background, Google drives around the country in vehicles on public roads and snaps pictures of the roads and surrounding buildings and identifies Wi-Fi locations that extend out to the roads. It uses the images for its Google Maps application and the Wi-Fi location in its services to quickly and automatically identify a customer’s location (such as in an application used for directions or displaying a map). (As an aside, Apple has a similar feature built into its iPhone and iTouch devices.)

In order to identify the wireless router, Google scans the data it is transmitting. But it can only read data being transmitted on non-secure, i.e., fully open to the public, networks.

Earlier this year, Google discovered and then disclosed that it had inadvertently stored the data being transmitted over these open, non-secure, non-password protected Wi-Fi networks. Google asserts that it never used any of this collected data in any of its products, and it fully intends to destroy the data. The only reason they have not done so already is due to various regulations, as they must dispose of the data legally, navigating myriad laws in dozens of countries in which this occurred.

Many in the media, tech industry, so-called privacy advocates, and now several government agencies (foreign and domestic) are investigating the matter, shouting bloody murder and pointing fingers at Google for “violating” people’s privacy.

This is absurd. Google collected data from public networks, i.e., wireless networks that individuals chose not to secure and, further, from computers that individuals also chose not to secure, which transmitted its data over a wireless network which they also knew (or should have known) was not secure. Securing a wireless router or network is a relatively simple task, and given that wireless signals can and do easily transmit beyond the person or company’s property, it is up to those that own a wireless router to secure their network, if they so desire.

If private, confidential data was transmitted over these unsecured networks, the primary finger of blame should be pointed at the person transmitting private data over an usecured network, not the person picking it up.

That does not stop the media and various groups and government from making sensationalist claims that Google “snatched passwords” and “private e-mail message.” While this may be factually correct, it is dishonest and misleading.

The “snatched passwords” and “private e-mail messages” were transmitted, unsecured, over an unsecured, public network (yes, both the network AND the computer that does the transmitting were not secured—a double whammy—and, yes, it is possible to transmit these things securely—even over an unsecured network—if you set up your e-mail and other applications on your computer to do just that. For example, any data transmitted to a URL starting with https:// —often used on Web sites when entering credit card information—is deemed secure even if you visit that site on a non-secure Wi-Fi network).

Some may argue that, just because one may leave the front door to one’s house unlocked—and wide open—doesn’t mean you have a right to enter the house and take what’s inside. But the metaphor is not quite accurate; it is more like someone left all their furniture on the sidewalk. That still does not mean, the argument may continue, that you have a right to take the furniture, since you don’t know whether it is intended to be given away (maybe the homeowner is simply replacing his carpets that day, and doesn’t want to damage his landscaping, or is in the process of moving).

Of course, the metaphor does not apply here exactly, as Google collected copies of people’s data. But it did not “steal” or “snoop” on people’s “private” data. It looked at it, while it was there, out in the open, in plain, clear view. Nor is Google exploiting the data, using it to blackmail people who accidentally did not secure their wireless networks and computers, or is otherwise exploiting the data (which would be wrong). They did not want it in the first place, and now want to throw it away. In other words, they have not harmed anyone in any way whatsoever.

As a property owner, you have a right to set the terms for the use of your property. When it comes to wireless networks, you do this by setting a password on your Wi-Fi router—or not—depending on your purpose. It is up to the owner of the wireless network to determine, and it is his responsibility to do so.

In short, Google did not violate anyone’s privacy, and it did not harm or violate anyone’s rights. Further, they should be praised for being transparent about the issue, and about their intended use (or, in this case, destruction) of the collected data. Morally, they did not have to announce this—just deleting the data would have been fine—and probably had to do so because of regulations in various countries (which has caused them undeserved scathing from the media, and likely expensive legal fees navigating the matter).

If anything, we should be alarmed at those advocating further government regulations or that Google hand over the collected data to anyone. And, we should all be taking responsibility for securing our privacy for those things which we wish to keep private.

Reasonable measures can and should be taken by any person transmitting data, especially over wireless networks. And these measures are nearly as simple as closing your front door (let alone locking it) and make clear your intentions with regard to your privacy.