< Google's Wi-fi Problem

Transcript

Friday, August 12, 2011

BOB GARFIELD:

You may remember Google causing a bit of pan-continental brouhaha last year when it came out that the cars they were using to take pictures for their popular Google Street View application also happened to be picking up information about wireless networks they were passing by. A lot more information, it turns out, than people were comfortable with.

What started as a public relations headache for the company is now a class action lawsuit, arguing that Google is guilty of wiretapping. Here to discuss the potential ramifications of the case is senior editor of Ars Technica, Nate Anderson. Nate, welcome to the show.

NATE ANDERSON:

Thanks for having me.

BOB GARFIELD:

So the Google Street View cars go down the street, and what are they gathering as they do that?

NATE ANDERSON:

They have a set of special cameras mounted on top of the cars that grab pictures of the homes and businesses they drive past. But they also were using for a while wi-fi connectivity to sense wireless networks in the area around them, so that, for instance, if your Android phone sensed a particular network in a particular area, the system could translate that into a specific set of coordinates. It is Google’s attempt to build its own wi-fi geolocation service.

BOB GARFIELD:

So the worst case is that Google sends its camera cars down your street, and while it’s sniffing your geolocation it also can actually capture and, let's say, read the emails that you are sending out on wi-fi, or monitor what you are downloading, including, you know, I don't – who knows what, porn.

NATE ANDERSON:

[LAUGHS] Right. That’s the claim that’s being made in this consolidated wiretap case, that Google’s Street View cars captured complete user names, passwords and even entire email messages.

BOB GARFIELD:

Now, there’s no evidence that Google actually went into this data to see what these data packets contained, right?

NATE ANDERSON:

Google has described the system as a mistaken bit of code that was a leftover from something else they were trying to do. It grabbed up more data than it should have and eventually sent to the company, but it does not appear, and I've seen no evidence to suggest, that anyone at the company has ever tried to go through it, figure out what’s in it or use it for any malicious means.

BOB GARFIELD:

Google has asked a judge to dismiss the case, but not on the grounds that it has never really gone into these packets to see what they contain, emails or whatever. They've said they weren't breaking any wiretapping laws ‘cause this was all openly available to anybody in these neighborhoods.

NATE ANDERSON:

Right. Google claims that when its cars passed open wi-fi networks and they grabbed part of the signal, that was just the same as somebody taking a radio scanner and tuning into police or fire transmissions. The signals were open, they're being broadcast through the air. It can't possibly be a Wiretap Act violation to grab the signal.

BOB GARFIELD:

But the judge said, nope, sorry, I'm not buying that. He believes that Google had special capabilities that just anybody doesn't have. What kind of capabilities was he referring to?

NATE ANDERSON:

So the judge drew a distinction between accessing a radio signal that is open to the general public and one in which you have to bring extra tools to access the data being transmitted.

So, in this case, Google was using something called packet-sniffing software, which grabs the actual packets being sent over the air by a user’s computer to their router and records them. The judge said that this was not widely available technology and that grabbing that really crossed the line.

While the judge made it sounds like packet-sniffing software is difficult to use and esoteric, it’s actually quite common. Many versions of it can be downloaded free of charge from the Internet.

BOB GARFIELD:

What’s the best guess for how this proceeds?

NATE ANDERSON:

In covering these kinds of cases, I've seen very, very few that actually go to trial and reach any sort of verdict. So my guess is since the judge has allowed this claim to continue, the case will probably be settled between the parties out of court, down the road.

BOB GARFIELD:

How does this fit into the narrative of what Google means to our lives?

NATE ANDERSON:

Well, there’s an emerging narrative around Google that its engineering, algorithmic, numerically focused culture is perhaps not always sensitive to what I guess you would label “emotional concerns” about issues like privacy and security. And people are increasingly uncomfortable with that stance.

And it’s not just Google. You saw this with Apple, which got into hot water earlier this year over geolocation issues surrounding the iPhone.

So I think it’s a real issue for the engineering mindset, in general, which likes to do cool things, which likes to implement them in the slickest way possible but which often thinks, I'm not gonna do anything wrong with this information, why would it bother people?

BOB GARFIELD:

Weirdly, though, Google’s main business, again, is search.

NATE ANDERSON:

Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE].

BOB GARFIELD:

And the search business doesn't really rely much on all of the data that Google is collecting on behalf of these other applications. Search is still contextual relevance, plus linkage, you know, and maybe a little bit of location and, and search behavior.

NATE ANDERSON:

Right, but it’s coming together very quickly. The ads that you see are linked to some of the data about you. Google often suggests things now based on your location. It suggests mapping results based on things that you have typed in. I mean, it even allows you to vote on certain results that are most relevant to you. So it is certainly building this capability to use all the data about you to shape the results that are given to you. And that can be a very powerful force for good.

I think it’s gonna be a question of are people comfortable with that and the protections that are put around that, because it is much better than just undifferentiated search where everyone gets exactly the same results.

BOB GARFIELD:

Nate, thank you.

NATE ANDERSON:

Thanks a lot, appreciate it.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER: SEARCHING]

BOB GARFIELD:

Nate Anderson is the senior editor of Ars Technica.