Google Steet View Privacy Controversy Touches Congress

Fri, Jul 9, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    Consumer Watchdog accuses Google of breaching the home WiFi networks of prominent lawmakers as part of its Google Street View snafu. To bolster its point, the group conducted some so-called wardriving to see if it could find unencrypted networks. In doing so, however, some say Consumer Watchdog went too far.

    Google has fired back at Consumer Watchdog’s criticism that the company accidentally snooped on the personal WiFi networks of several members of Congress.

    In May, Google admitted that it had accidentally used code, written for a WiFi project, which caused the Google Street View vehicles used to photograph streets and terrain to collect SSID (service set identifier) data, MAC (media access control) addresses and “payload data” from unprotected WiFi networks. The company has since removed the code.

    Now Consumer Watchdog, a longstanding critic of Google, is arguing that the company’s actions could have recorded communications of members of Congress involved in national security issues. To get this information (PDF), Consumer Watchdog checked some members of Congress’ networks during the past week to see if they were vulnerable to having been snooped by Google.

    Of the five residences the Consumer Watchdog checked, Rep. Jane Harman, chair of the Intelligence Subcommittee of the Homeland Security Committee, had a clearly identifiable and vulnerable network, while the other four had vulnerable networks in their vicinity that may also belong to the members of Congress, the group said.

    Consumer Watchdog has written to Harman and 18 other members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee whose homes are pictured on Google Street View about the issue, and is calling for immediate hearings.

    In a statement, Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court called Google’s actions “the most massive example of wire-tapping in American history.”

    Court said, “Whether it’s compromising government secrets or our personal financial information, Google’s unprecedented WiSpying threatens the security of the American people and Congress owes Americans action.”

    However, Berin Szoka, senior fellow at the Progress & Freedom Foundation, countered that the group was doing what it accused Google of doing.

    “[Consumer Watchdog] didn’t do anything wrong in how they conducted their tests: Like Google, they were only observing information that anyone could have observed with a WiFi device from the street,” Szoka blogged. “But that’s precisely what makes their charges of ‘WiSpying’ so hypocritical and silly. Indeed, they went well beyond what Google did in actually publishing the names of Rep. Harman’s unsecured networks—which privacy watchdogs would never have forgiven Google had Google actually done that.”

    What Consumer Watchdog did was not a useful contribution to what should be a broader online privacy debate, said Ed Black, CEO of the Computer & Communications Industry Association.

    “They detected unsecured WiFi networks that anyone, including neighbors, can pick up,” Black said in a statement. “It proves nothing about what, if anything, a person or company like Google might have done to intercept and record data. To follow that same logic, the fact that everyone’s Internet access provider has 24/7 access to all of their personal and business online activities, transactions, messages and data proves nothing about what the IAPs are actually doing to intercept, record, use or share that information.”

    A Google spokesperson told eWEEK the company already admitted it was a mistake to include the code, but that the company did nothing illegal.

    “We’re continuing to work with the relevant authorities to answer their questions and concerns,” the spokesperson said.

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