Google’s debacle on Wi-Fi Snooping was recently subjected to an investigation by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and triggered several lawsuits at the same time. Government reports say that from 2007-2010, the web giant collected emails and other sensitive personal information with the use of its Street View Cars.
If you are just hearing about this news right now, then you may be wondering, what was Google doing in the first place? Why did they do it and what did they do wrong? And, how can you protect yourself in case other people do something similar?
Where it all began
Since 2007, Google employed the use of Street View cars to take pictures and gather Service Set Identifier (SSID) information, Media Access Control (MAC) addresses and other basic Wi-Fi data from networks. That was no secret at all, considering that all these data were to be used for location-based services like Google Maps.
The problem, however, was that the Street View cars did more than just collect these pertinent data. Although Google says that its programming codes were simply meant to collect the data stated above, the Street View cars were also collecting data packet information at the same time, too. This means that they also collected web browsing histories and communication data such as email addresses, passwords and other sensitive information from numerous users making use of non-protected Wi-Fi networks.
It seems that Google has been doing this since 2007 when the Street View project was implemented, but was only realized that glitch when Germany’s data protection authority requested to audit the data collection practice. It was this request from the German authorities that sparked an internal review, which eventually uncovered the problem.
Google insists that it was an honest mistake in the programming codes made by one lone engineer, and they were mortified by the mistake. Whether it was a mistake or not remains to be seen; their apology did not stop the international outrage and investigations done by regulatory bodies from all over the world. And, didn’t ease the minds of those of us concerned with privacy. The incident raises ta very important question: Can we trust Google?
How much sensitive data did Google manage to snoop?
A report from Google states that the Street Cars have collected data fragments only and not entire pieces of communication or browsing data. This is because the street cars were constantly on the move when collecting data, so it was only able to collect from specific wireless networks that were in range. Likewise, the Street View cars constantly changed channels about five times each second.
Aside from that, Google was not able to collect any information from protected Wi-Fi networks within the signal range of their street cars, but only from Wi-Fi networks which were free and unprotected.
What did the FCC have to say?
While privacy snooping is indeed illegal, Google did argue during the investigation that it only managed to intercept data from wireless networks which were readily accessible to the public. With that, the FCC legally cleared Google, stating that it did not violate any section of the United States Communications Act.
Even with the ruling from FCC, critics continue to target the web-giant, calling on it to be accountable for its actions. It has since apologized for this fiasco, suspended the Street View project, and has taken more stringent measures to prevent instances like this.
How can users protect themselves?
Despite the explanation, people continue to ask questions.
How can we be so sure that the Wi-Fi snooping incident was not a simple mistake? How can we be so sure that Google did not intentionally plan this to happen? If one single engineer can sneak in a code without the notice of other engineers (which happen to be some of the best and smartest in the world) from Google’s how do we know that there aren’t any similar rouge programs operating on Android, on Gmail or other services, not even related to Google?
While the chances are slim, after the Street View Incident, people can never be too sure.
With that, the only possible solution is to take proactive privacy measures. One thing is to protect your Wi-Fi router, preventing security intrusions. But it does not end there.
Another way to ensure your privacy is by making use of a Virtual Private Network or VPN. VPN services employ the use of highly encrypted connection between one’s computer to the internet, protecting your online activity and identity. The use of VPN services provide you with online privacy, preventing the government, your internet service provider or any other group or individual from eavesdropping on your online activities and gaining access to important details such as login information, banking details, identity or other sensitive documents.
A look at proXPN
proXPN is a personal virtual private network that provides users with privacy and safety while using the internet. proXPN encrypts all data passing between your computer and our servers, including everything over Wi-Fi and even through your ISP. This offers dramatically improved protection from Wi-Fi snooping.
Since 2009, it has provided secure internet connection on the desktops and mobile devices of more than 1 million users. proXPN uses impenetrable industry-leading 512-bit encryption to stop other parties from accessing user online activity.
proXPN offers a free basic service and an affordable paid service featuring more powerful protection features.