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Google's Wi-fi snooping is a disgrace

WebFeatures
, 16 May 2010Features

If you were ever in any doubt that you should never trust Google, it's latest antics should persuade you that the company is in fact evil.

Google watches everything you do. If you use its search engine it has records that it can pin to you personally. It most likely knows your home address, your bad habits, your porn preferences and who you've been sleeping with - if you ever emailed them afterwards that is. That's on top of all the stuff you know it knows about you and which, if you use any of its services, it will use to target its adverts at you.

But it emerged Friday that the gadget-laden Street View vehicles the outfit sends up and down ordinary streets around the world, photographing everything that moves  -as well as everything that doesn't - were programmed to snoop on any unsecured Wi-fi networks they came across

According to Google, this data collection exercise was a "mistake."

Originally the firm said in a (now-deleted) blog post that, although "Google did collect publicly broadcast SSID information (the WiFi network name) and MAC addresses (the unique number given to a device like a WiFi router) using Street View cars, we did not collect payload data (information sent over the network)."

This turned out to be cobblers. "It’s now clear," wrote Alan Eustace, Google's senior VP, engineering & Research, "that we have been mistakenly collecting samples of payload data from open (i.e. non-password-protected) WiFi networks."

The details only emerged after Germany's consumer protection authorities asked repeated questions about data the company was gathering but failed to get answers. When it finally got an answer it was a lie. Germany's Consumer Affairs Minister Ilse Aigner went bananas over the affair.

"According to the information available to us so far, Google has for years penetrated private networks, apparently illegally," Aigner said in a statement on Saturday. She said the "alarming incident" showed that Google does not respect the fundamental need for privacy.

Aigner had previously sought to keep Google's Street View out of Germany, arguing that it infringes on privacy.

Google's Eustace said the company was "profoundly sorry" for the "error", and that it is working with agencies around the world to decide how to dispose of the data. "As soon as we became aware of this problem, we grounded our Street View cars and segregated the data on our network, which we then disconnected to make it inaccessible, " he said.

He blamed the "error" on a bit of old code that the company happened to have lying about since 2006, and which just happened to be incorporated into the code that was  supposed to be sniffing out data "like SSID information and MAC addresses."

Most of the media seems to be buying Google's line that the code was inserted by "mistake", and that it forgot that it was there, and it would never have made use of the 600 gigabytes of data it collected from Wi-Fi networks in more than 30 countries.

Well I'm not buying it.

The episode stinks. If you consider how the company started out, the conversation would have gone something like this: "Information is power. The Internet is full of information. If we can somehow get gold of all that information we'll be sorted."

Ever since, the company has been gathering as much information as it can about of as many of us as it can. Why else would an engineer have piped up: "Don't be evil"? He recognised that having a monopoly on information gives you a monopoly on power.

Google like Apple, promotes this image of being a bunch of hippyi-sh geeks out to do good in the world. In fact, it's a company like any other and its prime function is to make money for the people that own it. The more money it makes the more "successful" it is.

Like any other company it makes money out of its users. It doesn't have it users' best interests at heart although it wants to look like it does. It has its own interests at heart. And those aren't the same as those of the user. You're there to be fleeced  - of your money or of your data.

"Maintaining people’s trust is crucial to everything we do," said Alan Eustace. It wants you to trust it, but it is not trustworthy. It wants to seem trustworthy. It  can - and does - make money out of your data.

"The engineering team at Google works hard to earn your trust—and we are acutely aware that we failed badly here," blogged Eustace. "We are profoundly sorry for this error and are determined to learn all the lessons we can from our mistake."

The lesson it will learn best? Don't get caught.

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