Defending Google

I dislike Google. It may be unfashionable, it may betray my corporatism and it may be ironic (especially considering that I'm taking advantage of Google's wonderful Blogspot tools at the very moment), but it's true. I dislike their faux-openness and I dislike their bullying of old, unfashionable companies and I dislike their disingenuous approach to lobbying. That's why it's so hard for me to write this: Google is a victim. People are trashing them over their capturing of data while sniffing WiFi networks and they deserve better.  


Attacking Google has become what praising Google was back in 2007: the fashionable thing to do. People dislike their position on wireless Net Neutrality, their search rankings and, yes, their WiFi sniffing habits. For me, it's been quite the reversal. I began disliking Google because of their support for Net Neutrality and the so-called "open" requirements for the 2007 wireless spectrum auctions. That put me at odds with many of my colleagues, as the wireless industry seemed to support both of those positions. Now it seems that I'm on Google's side because I oppose Net Neutrality for wireless, I'm skeptical of claims that Google conspires to quash competitors' search rankings and I believe Google when they say that they captured private WiFi data by accident. I'll save a discussion of my former two positions for whenever I start up a blog on regulatory overreach, but the latter position fits right in with this here blog on WiFi sniffing.

I wrote about Google's WiFi sniffing problems a while back, but I feel compelled to post a quick note about it again because it seems like the issue has not gone away.

I realize that people who sniff WiFi networks have a responsibility. We have the power to capture data that could be of a private nature, and it's not moral, ethical or in most cases legal for us to save, store or view that data without the consent of the person or entity that owns that data. Google forsook that responsibility when they captured hundreds of gigabytes of other people's data and stored it.

Now, what Google did is bad. It's bad the way that frying ants with a magnifying glass is bad or punching a co-worker for drinking the last cup of coffee is bad. But just as those two examples are very different grades of bad, so too is Google's WiFi sniffing misdeed a different grade of bad than some activists are making it out to be.

Google was sniffing wireless networks in order to create a WiFi-based location service. They want to allow people using laptops, iPads and other non-cellular devices to have iPhone-esque location-based services. To do that, they are taking a lead from SkyHook (the first company that I ever heard of that did this sort of thing) and sniffing WiFi networks for signal strength, SSID and BSSID information. That information can be gathered without sniffing any application data at all. No web pages, emails or anything else that might contain that all-important data of a private nature.

I realize that this is not a trial and that I am not a lawyer, but if I were looking at this like a criminal proceeding, I would have to conclude that the motive doesn't fit the alleged crime. Google's motive is to get non-data WiFi traffic that aids in tracking location. Google is accused of hoarding data traffic. Why would they do such a thing? The only answers I can come up with is that either they'd have to be lying about the whole project or they made a mistake when sniffing.

The idea that they made a mistake when sniffing seems much more plausible to me than the idea that they've been lying and using this location services project as a cover for collecting half a hard drive of personal data via WiFi sniffing. The conspiracy theory just doesn't make sense. Why would they risk their reputation and legal scrutiny for a little bit of data that A) is, in many cases, encrypted, and B) they could probably get by any number of legal methods like surveys, customers, partnerships, etc.

Of course, in writing this post not only am I defending a company that I am sometimes at odds with, but I am running the risk of looking like the WiFi equivalent of a Pol Pot apologist at some point in the future. I'll take that risk, because sometimes the bullies of the corporate world really are the victim.

Comments

  1. "...sniffing WiFi networks for signal strength, SSID and BSSID information..." -- to be precise, the don't need SSIDs and I'm not even sure they normally collect it (aside from that case you're talking about). If you look at the API syntax at http://code.google.com/apis/gears/geolocation_network_protocol.html , you will see that the query doesn't contain SSIDs, only BSSIDs a.k.a MAC addresses and signal levels. That's because SSIDs are easy to change; BSSIDs are not.

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