“Highly Illogical”: The Hysteria Over Google’s Wi-Fi Scanning


(Original posting date: 28 May 2010)

Greetings. I don’t find many opportunities (nor do I have much inclination) to channel characters from Star Trek, but I can only imagine Mr. Spock’s likely bemusement related to the shrill and illogical brouhaha over Google’s Street View Wi-Fi scanning.

To quote the ungrammatical Mr. Bumble, a reprehensible yet occasionally insightful character in Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist, sometimes “the law is a ass–a idiot.”

Such is the case — as far as I’m concerned — when it comes to laws and controversies regarding the scanning of open Wi-Fi networks.

Let’s start with a basic truth — an open Wi-Fi network is, duh … open!

While the number of open Wi-Fi networks has been falling relative to nets secured at least with weak WEP crypto, or much better with WPA (or better yet, WPA2), there are still vast numbers of open Wi-Fi networks that pop up without prompting all over the world.

Raise your hand if you’ve never seen an open Wi-Fi net when attempting to connect your laptop to the Internet. Very few hands raised out there, I’ll wager.

Now raise your hand if you’ve ever opportunistically connected to an open Wi-Fi net, without permission. Lots of hands raised now.

And have you ever driven around your neighborhood with wardriving software enabled on your laptop or phone, listening to the “pings” as Wi-Fi sites registered at nearly every home or business you passed — and perhaps you saved the data and created Wi-Fi maps to use and share?

This is not just a hobbyist activity. Companies like Skyhook Wireless have built entire businesses around geolocation systems that involve the scanning of Wi-Fi signals.

And why not? Wi-Fi networks are essentially as obvious to outside observers, walking down the sidewalk or driving up the street, as are porch lights, or the flickering TV screens visible through curtains after dark.

Even when Wi-Fi access points are configured with their “SSID” beacons disabled — which tends to cause various user complications — Wi-Fi routers and hotspots are about as secret as a full moon on a cloudless night, and pretty much just as impossible to actually hide.

You can still pass laws to ban Wi-Fi scanning of course — just as the order can be given to ignore the fact that the emperor actually is parading down the central square stark naked. But reality generally triumphs over nonsensical laws in the long run.

Laws related to Wi-Fi scanning don’t exist in a vacuum, and seem to often be related to laws that attempt to ban photography of imagery that can be easily seen by observers from public places. Such illogic has been used to attack Google’s Street View photos, in much the same way that Google is now being chastised for Wi-Fi scanning associated with Street View vehicles.

Amusingly — in a sick kind of way — the fact is that the same government entities who tend to push forth a dramatic show of disdain for Street View — and now Google’s Wi-Fi scanning — are often the same ones rapidly deploying massive real-time CCTV (closed circuit TV) surveillance systems, with vast amounts of real-time imagery data pouring into government servers to be used in often unspecified ways for indefinite periods of time. Some of these entities have also conducted mass and sometimes illegal surveillance of their telephone and Internet networks.

Their complaining about Street View and Wi-Fi therefore seems highly disingenuous — but obviously politically expedient.

Google did made mistakes — they’ve publicly taken responsibility for these — related to the Wi-Fi Street View controversy. It probably would have been wise to publicly announce their Wi-Fi scanning capabilities before beginning the project, so that various governmental entities could register any concerns based on their associated national laws — however ridiculous those laws might be in this sphere, given the ease with which anyone with simple tools can scan Wi-Fi anywhere.

But since Google’s “adversaries” now “pile on” at every opportunity, proactive discussion of the Wi-Fi aspects of Street View might have avoided a fair amount of the current controversy.

The ostensibly more dramatic aspect of Google’s Wi-Fi situation relates to their revelation that their Wi-Fi scanning systems were unintentionally collecting highly fragmentary “payload” data from open Wi-Fi nets, in addition to locationally-related (e.g., SSID) data.

Google critics have been screaming — how could this possibly happen by accident? “What kind of nightmarish, nefarious plot is in play?” — they demand to know.

First, contrary to some of the accusatory claims being made, it’s extremely unlikely that any banking or similarly sensitive data was exposed even in fragmentary form, for the simple reason that virtually all sites dealing with such data use SSL/TLS security systems (https:) that would provide typical encryption protections regardless of the open, unencrypted nature of (extremely unwisely configured) underlying Wi-Fi systems.

And while clearly the collection of Wi-Fi payload data by Google was a significant oversight, it’s the kind of mistake that is actually very easy to make.

It’s completely ordinary for network diagnostic tools and related software to include mechanisms for the viewing and collection not only of “envelope” data but also of test data “payload” traffic flows. Virtually every Linux user has a tool available for this purpose that can provide these functions — the ubiquitous “tcpdump” command.

In Google’s case, it seems highly likely that a procedural breakdown — not criminal intent of any kind — led to the payload data capture portion of the Wi-Fi scanning tools not being appropriately disabled. Such procedural problems are naturally to be avoided, but for critics to try balloon such an issue into fear mongering and conspiracy theories just doesn’t make sense.

And given the very high capacity of inexpensive disk drives today, it’s simple to see how even relatively large amounts of data — like accidentally collected payload data — could collect unnoticed in an obscure directory somewhere deep in a file system over long periods of time.

Like I say, I’m not a lawyer. Other heads will thrash out the legal aspects of this situation.

In my own view, the entire saga has been blown out of proportion, largely by forces primarily interested in unfairly and inappropriately scoring points against Google, rather than treating the situation — both as relates to Google’s Wi-Fi scanning and more broadly to Street View itself — in a logical and evenhanded manner.

But then, that’s pretty much what we’ve come to expect from you humans.

I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.
– – –
The correct term is “Internet” NOT “internet” — please don’t fall into the trap of using the latter. It’s just plain wrong!