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5/27/2010
07:16 PM
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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Google's 'Screw Up' Looks Expensive

Google's Street View snafu may end up being one of the more costly copy-and-paste mistakes in recent memory. In the past ten days, there have been six lawsuits filed against Google in the U.S. for alleged illegal data interception.

Google's Street View snafu may end up being one of the more costly copy-and-paste mistakes in recent memory. In the past ten days, there have been six lawsuits filed against Google in the U.S. for alleged illegal data interception.All because of a mistake, as Google SVP of engineering Alan Eustace recently explained:

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.

Mind you, this is publicly broadcast data. Anyone with the technical know-how can write software that will grab unprotected data traveling over WiFi networks. Even if the data is protected, there's plenty of free packet sniffing and encryption-cracking software to enable snooping.

Those suing Google are alleging privacy and wiretap law violations despite Google's claim that it didn't even know it had the data. You too could be guilty of this sort of wiretapping, if you've ever made a mobile call that was recorded on an answering machine and happened to capture the conversation of someone talking nearby.

Was any harm done? I doubt it. Even so, the legal fees and inevitable settlement will probably be disproportionate to any real damage. This is not like the company's Buzz launch fiasco, which arguably put some users at real risk from stalking ex-spouses and may have exposed confidential relationships.

The inadvertently gathered WiFi data apparently remained in Google's data centers, unused and inaccessible to the outside world.

Certainly Google should revise its policies so that it knows what its code does. But beyond that, this strikes me as a case of regulators and attorneys gone wild.

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