Cyberlaw, FCC, Google / Search Engines, Privacy, Technology

Google Street View Project Under Fire For Gathering Unencrypted Wireless Data; So Much for Not Being Evil

Even though Google Street View is pretty awesome for a lot of things, like finding directions, first and foremost, you could also look at the software as an incredibly complex stalking tool. When Street View first came out, Google caught some major flak for some of the images it captured in its signature camera vans. The Street View cameras allegedly captured naked people, in-progress robberies, and other events that the subjects of the images probably did not want on the internet.

Now Google Street View is in the news again, facing more unpleasant allegations. Not for violating people’s privacy via visual images, but this time for gathering data from private yet unsecured wireless networks while driving through random neighborhoods….

From the New York Times:

The company on Tuesday released a trove of documents related to a federal investigation of its Street View mapping project. Although the project was intended to photograph the world’s streets, from 2007 to 2010 Google gathered unencrypted Internet data from wireless networks, including the content of private communications, as its specially equipped cars passed through neighborhoods.

Among the documents released Tuesday are sworn declarations by nine people — their names and titles redacted but most of whom appear to be Google engineers — who said they were not aware of the data collection either because it was not part of their job or they did not review the project documentation, even when it was provided to them.

Also Tuesday, Google confirmed that the Information Commissioner’s Office in Britain had reopened its investigation of the Street View project and had asked the company for additional information about the data it collected there.

Google has already run into trouble on this issue. In April, the FCC lobbed a $25,000 fine on the company, saying it had “deliberately impeded and delayed” investigation into the data-gathering.

The updated TL;DR here is that basically everyone who was potentially involved responded with variations of, “It wasn’t me!” Don’t you miss the good old days when Google’s slogan was still “Don’t be evil”? Their new slogan should be, as the Times also mentions, “It’s not my job!”

Jill Hazelbaker, a spokeswoman for Google, said the failure by multiple engineers to review the project was “a mistake,” adding, “Clearly there was a process breakdown.”

Google’s collection of private Internet communications became public when German regulators began looking into Street View in that country. At first, the company blamed a programming mistake by an engineer, saying his experimental software was accidentally included in Street View — and stressing that the data was never intended for or used in any Google products.

But the F.C.C.’s report said the gathering of the so-called payload data was not the work of a lone engineer. It was, the report said, put into motion as part of an engineer’s “20 percent” time, which Google gives employees to work on their own projects. And the report found that the engineer “specifically told two engineers working on the project, including a senior manager, about collecting payload data.”

The timing of all this drama is probably making the higher-ups at Google particularly unhappy. Because just on Monday, Apple unveiled plans to roll out its own map program for mobile devices. Apple’s maps will not only have a Street View equivalent, but the interface will also have 3D flyovers (ahhh! So cool!) and voice directions like the Android phones already have.

To be fair, Google says it has done nothing with the data it got (for the record, the engineer behind the project is Marius Milner, who has refused to respond to questions on Fifth Amendment grounds): “Google has not disclosed the data to any third party; has not used the data in any product or service; and has not used the data for the benefit of any person or entity in any way.”

Honestly though, that doesn’t make me feel any better. It’s great that Google allows its employees to have pet projects. But still, shouldn’t there be some level of supervision? Otherwise, who knows? I know privacy is dead, but what if Google has a Doctor Krieger on staff? I don’t want someone like that having unfettered access to my personal information, regardless of whether it’s ever going to be used for some official product or service.

Denials Over Google Street View [New York Times]

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