James Butler's Blog

GGL: Street View WiFi Data Capture

June 12, 2010 04:24

[JPEG] DailyMail.co.uk

When Google's "Street View" roaming image/data collection vehicles collected more than simple location and machine information, it put itself directly in harm's way.

Google maintains fleets of vehicles outfitted with 360° cameras that capture images for use with the Google Maps "Street View" feature. They also employ GPS equipment to tie the images to the positioning data. And like other companies that provide a mapping service, they also collected information about wifi activity to be tied in with the positioning data for use with other services.

The ethical problem is ... they also collected bits of the data that was being broadcast by the "open" wifi providers that they discovered.

For example, if a Google Street View vehicle drove past a home that used a wireless router to give all of the family's computers Internet access, and if that family hadn't changed the default router settings to enforce security and encryption requirements, then both the "open" router's "public" information (the name of the network and the identifying number for the router) and a little bit of the data that wireless router was broadcasting would be recorded. The "public" information would be used, along with the GPS data from those same moments, to build a map of wifi "hotspots". That's not so much of a problem.

The little bit of "non-public" data might contain a tiny fragment of a web page request, or a small chunk of an email message delivery negotiation, and that is where the problem lies.

I'm sure there must have been a reason to build in the capability to collect that sort of packet "payload" while you were mapping other information about a location, but (a) I can't imagine a benevolent reason, after thinking about it for awhile and (b) if one were to deploy that capability, one should be prepared to defend it with solid reasoning and transparency.

What I have heard from Google on this issue so far has not been very satisfying. They really need to get out the media effort to communicate their true intention, or risk leaving a pretty nasty taste in the web community's mouth. That "wobble" phenomenon that I wrote of, earlier, predicts that uncontrolled spin is public relations' worst enemy, and without an acceptable alternative, this could get really rough for Google.

If they want to keep their "Don't be evil" motto, Google has got to step up to the plate and let us know why they captured any "non-public" data in the first place ... and make it good. It's a definite ethical, and possibly criminal, strike against them if they cannot.

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