Google Street View Car in Chinatown Toronto

Recently search engine giant Google has been under fire for unintentionally collecting payload data from unsecured WiFi networks with it’s innovative Google Street View Cars. The reason they are harvesting data is for geo location, the driving force behind apps like Google Maps, Yellow Pages, and my personal favorite TimmyMe. If you are anything like me you love these apps and have incorporated them in to your life by now.

The problem was that those funny looking cars were collecting a little bit more information than they should have, but only from open, unsecured/non passworded WiFi networks. Networks I just so happen to love when going for a walk with my iPod Touch.

They also did not collect too much data as the hardware is designed to rotate through WiFi channels quickly, not stay on a channel and snoop. But snoop they did, but just a little. Google said in their defense on their official blog.

“So how did this happen? Quite simply, it was a mistake. In 2006 an engineer working on an experimental WiFi project wrote a piece of code that sampled all categories of publicly broadcast WiFi data. A year later, when our mobile team started a project to collect basic WiFi network data like SSID information and MAC addresses using Google’s Street View cars, they included that code in their software—although the project leaders did not want, and had no intention of using, payload data.”

What that breaks down to is that they picked up a piece of code that could do the job, a job that adheres to the informal company slogan “Don’t be evil”. But they didn’t look at the code thoroughly enough to know that it had another function unknown to Google Engineers, who placed the errant code into the current project that ended up collecting small segments of data.

Google admitted that they made a pretty big boo-boo, stopped the collection of WiFi data, and is bringing in 3rd party companies to audit the data, and tweaking their own internal procedures to minimize something like this from happening again. Standard damage control.

Google ends their blog posting with a note of apology that lacks the dusty corporate face one would expect from a company so large.

“The engineering team at Google works hard to earn your trust—and we are acutely aware that we failed badly here. We are profoundly sorry for this error and are determined to learn all the lessons we can from our mistake.”
A few things we need to take into consideration here. The data is rather useless and it wont be shared, nor would have been shared with 3rd parties as it would not have been part of the the Geo Location API as you can see in an earlier posting on this issue that was amended due to some factual inaccuracies.

I think it is rather sad that Google makes a mistake and the world lashes out at them. Google has given this world so much, do you honestly think they really had evil intentions with all of this? Looking on the bright side I am happy this lesson was learned with something rather minor, it raised some awareness about not leaving your WiFi open, and it gives the paranoid something to type about.

I will still stand by Google after this, and I hope you do to.