Consumer Group Sniffs Congresswoman’s Open Wi-Fi

Published on

We’re not sure what’s
more humorous: That California Rep. Jane Harman, the ranking member of
the House Intelligence Committee, maintains two unencrypted Wi-Fi
networks at her residence, or that a consumer group sniffed her
unsecured traffic in a bid to convince lawmakers to hold hearings about

A representative for Consumer
— a group largely funded by legal fees, the Rose
Foundation, Streisand Foundation, Tides Foundation and others — parked
outside Harman’s and other lawmakers’ Washington-area residences to
determine whether they had unsecured Wi-Fi networks that might have been
sniffed by Google as part of the internet giant’s Street View and
Google Maps program.

The group wants the House Energy and Commerce Committee, of which
Harman is also a member, to haul Google executives before it, so they
can publicly explain why, for three years, Google was downloading data
packets from unencrypted Wi-Fi networks in neighborhoods in dozens of
countries. Google has repeatedly said it didn’t realize it was
storing snippets of payload data on unsecured Wi-Fi networks, until
German privacy authorities began questioning what data Google was

Consumer Watchdog’s wardriving unintentionally highlights the murky
state of wiretapping laws in the United States
. According to the text
of the federal wiretapping statute
, it’s not considered felony
wiretapping “to intercept or access an electronic communication made
through an electronic communication system that is configured so that
such electronic communication is readily accessible to the general

So even if had been deliberate, Google’s sniffing would arguably not
have been illegal. For its part, Consumer Watchdog says it only grabbed
frame data, not content, in order to enumerate the devices on Harman’s

“This was a deliberate attempt to focus attention on how Google could
well have gathered information on the members of Congress who are
members of the very committee who we think should be holding hearings on
this,” John Simpson, a consumer advocate for the group, said in a
telephone interview.

As many as 30 state attorneys general
and several governments are looking into Google’s behavior. A handful of
members of Congress have asked Google what happened, but no public
hearing has been called in the United States.

Google says it is cooperating with the relevant authorities, and said
actions were lawful
. (.pdf)

The District of Columbia residence of Harman appears
on Google Street View, as does the residence of several other Commerce
Committee members. Consumer Watchdog could not identify open Wi-Fi at
those other lawmakers’ homes, but found two networks with Harman’s name
on them while parked outside her house.

“Enough serious questions have been raised about Google’s practices
that their top executives should be called into account and testify
about what happened,” Simpson said. “If I were Jane Harman, I would go
to Google and demand to know what they have from my network. ”

Calls to Harman’s offices in the District of Columbia and El Segundo,
California, were not returned.

Consumer Watchdog said that, between June 27 and July 6, its survey
included the residences of Commerce Committee members Reps. Henry
Waxman, (D-California), John Dingell (D-Michigan), Edward Markey
(D-Massachusetts), Rick Boucher (D-Virginia) and Harman. Kismet, the
program Google said it used when it packet-sniffed open Wi-Fi networks,
was the same program the group used.

A technician parked in front of each lawmaker’s residence for five
minutes, the group said.

Two unencrypted networks, Harmanmbr and harmantheater, according to
the group, were
discovered outside Harman’s residence
. (.pdf)

Street View is part of Google Maps and Google Earth, It provides
panoramic pictures of streets and their surroundings across the globe.

French regulators said data captured by Google includes e-mail
passwords and content of electronic messages

Photos: Consumer Watchdog

Consumer Watchdog
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Providing an effective voice for American consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Non-partisan.

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