Not just the usual suspects

After the fallout from Google's accidental capture of personal data from Wifi networks made savage headlines, it's important to remember the real debate at stake

Who's really to blame for Google's collection of personal date from wi-fi networks?

Image: CC-AT-NC Flickr: pipot83 (Fabio Premoli)

Google's collection of personal data from wi-fi networks resulted in a huge public outcry. Google, in turn responded in the correct and dignified manner by apologising and promising to delete this data. Yet, in my opinion, the outcry was somewhat misdirected, as well as disguising an abdication of responsibility by many.

It is essential to remember that Google only collected data from Wi-Fi networks which were open or unsecured, and whilst Google was unquestionably wrong to do so and must be held to account, there are other parties to blame.

The nature of reality is such that people really should take basic security measures for their own peace of mind. Leaving your Wi-Fi network unsecured is that same as leaving your doors and windows unlocked; you can hardly be surprised, then, when your traffic is watched. In both cases, the thief is wrong but for your safety you should take basic precautions.

Google collected data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks by driving past houses – it only took a few seconds for them to collect private data. Imagine if a hacker sat outside your house with a laptop for a hour? Imagine if one of your neighbours listened in to your network? Can you imagine how much personal data can be gleaned if done so intentionally?

So how should you protect your personal data, and whose responsibility is it?

Firstly, it is the responsibility of whoever provides you with a wireless access point; neglecting to ensure that it is secure means that they are not respecting your right to privacy. 

Secondly, web services are responsible to some extent. When using a web service, many companies will ensure they use encryption between your computer and their server to stop others listening in. This is what is happening when you see a padlock icon in your web-browser toolbar. Although it is expensive, it's an essential measure for sensitive data like credit cards.

Those services that deal with sensitive or private information should be using encryption. Google's access to such data was enabled simply because these services were not encrypting data. Google is actually relatively good for this - if you use Gmail, your data is encrypted. So all the complete emails that Google picked up, aren't—ironically—from Gmail. 

But thirdly and more importantly, the debate is far bigger than this issue. We, as a society, need to assess how companies are entitled to use our personal data. Our information is often abused, albeit entirely legally. But how comfortable are you with more and more of your life being lived publicly online? What about your data being locked up and held captive by large multi-national companies? How happy are you about being profiled more and more by computer algorithms, and these algorithms governing your access to services?

Whilst Google's wi-fi controversy has been brought to the public's attention, we should be aware that there exists a much larger debate that is not being adequately discussed in a public forum. 

James Baster is a professional computer programmer living and working in Edinburgh, and tweets @jarofgreen. 


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Comments (4)

  1. S:
    Dec 16, 2010 at 05:45 PM

    "... Google only collected data from Wi-Fi networks which were open or unsecured, and ... Google was unquestionably wrong to do so ..."

    This opinion is unreferenced and unsubstantiated. I disagree with it.

    While I agree with the overall sentiment, I find this article under-researched, unreferenced and off-the-cuff in the worst mucky duck style, oft bemoaned by Private Eye on a slow day.

  2. James:
    Dec 16, 2010 at 07:20 PM

    I'm a bit puzzled ... do you mean this bit?

    "... Google only collected data from Wi-Fi networks which were open or unsecured, and ..."

    You won't find this fact mentioned often in reports. I guess mostly it's left out because it's technical and hard to explain. However, it is vital to understanding what actually happened.

    (Google "google wifi unsecured" and you'll find lots of news stories that do include it, tho)

    I did submit references with my story and the editor cut them.
    If your interested in the British Governments response, for instance:

    Or do you mean this bit?

    "Google was unquestionably wrong to do so"

    Of course it's unreferenced, it's an opinion, and one I haven't seen anyone contest. They should not have done this, and I included a longer paragraph in my original submission making clear I wasn't apologising for them.

    1. Jim Killock:
      Dec 17, 2010 at 02:03 PM

      One small correction: the ICO is not the British Government. They are meant to be an independent commissioner. Some people may question their independence, but the ICO would regard themselves as separate and autonomous.

      1. James:
        Dec 17, 2010 at 02:13 PM

        Thanks for pointing that out.

This thread has been closed from taking new comments.

By James Baster on Dec 16, 2010

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