October 20, 2010

The Pyrrhic Wi-Fi Victory of Google's Adversaries

Greetings. With much fanfare, sites around the Net have trumpeted word that Google is no longer collecting Wi-Fi location data via their Street View vehicles -- in the same breath usually emphasizing the continuing controversy over Google's accidental collection of Wi-Fi payload data (an overblown story that I've previously discussed: "Highly Illogical": The Hysteria Over Google's Wi-Fi Scanning).

The various parties who condemned Google either for collecting Wi-Fi location data alone, and/or for the inadvertent (and self-reported) collection of associated payload data, are now presumably patting themselves on their backs, oh so proud of putting "Big Bad Google" in its place.

What these groups have actually achieved is causing Google, the firm that has been in the most effective position to process openly broadcast Wi-Fi beacon location data for the public good, to be threatened out of providing an extremely useful service for the public at large.

Meanwhile, all those Wi-Fi hotspots are still out there. You can drive down the street with virtually any laptop (or many phones) and plot the Wi-Fi hubs in their multitudes.

And if you're so inclined, you can also gather the payload data from the many open, unsecured Wi-Fi networks -- perhaps purposely and with genuinely evil intent. This in stark contrast to accidental payload data collection -- the data never to be exploited or abused -- as was the case with Google.

Software to capture Wi-Fi payload data is all over the Net. Even the makers of the wonderful (and inexpensive) little Chumby "Internet appliance" posted code for using the Chumby to "sniff" and display captured Wi-Fi packets.

Now obviously, the Chumby folks weren't suggesting that such capabilities should be used for illicit purposes. And that's a key point -- not only is it easy to capture open Wi-Fi data, but there are completely legitimate testing-related reasons to do so -- essentially the situation that led to Google's accidental wider collection of such data.

There are of course some hotheads and conspiracy theorists who are still convinced that Google was purposely collecting Wi-Fi payload data, had a secret plan to earn vast profits from that data, and perhaps also operates a kitten-crushing facility at the Googleplex. There's no point in arguing with such folks -- it's like trying to carry on an intelligent conversation with a bag of marshmallows.

But when you do travel from place to place, don't forget those vast numbers of unprotected Wi-Fi signals permeating the air around you -- that can continue to be criminally exploited by crooks -- but will no longer be useful to society at large via legitimate Google-based services.

Score one for the blockheads.


Posted by Lauren at October 20, 2010 07:07 PM | Permalink
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