Consumer Watchdog finds unprotected
network at U.S. Rep.’s home that appears on Google Street View
Google Inc. is playing down claims that it may have accidentally
breached personal Wi-Fi networks at the homes of several members of
Congress, including some working on national security issues.
Consumer Watchdog, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based
advocacy group that has been a sharp critic of Google’s privacy
practices in the past, said Thursday that the search giant may have
breached the networks while its vehicles were collecting wireless SSID
information for the company’s Street View service.
Google in May had disclosed that the accidental inclusion of code
written for an experimental Wi-Fi project was causing its Street View
cars to inadvertently
collect “payload” data from unprotected Wi-Fi networks along the
routes. Google said that it has since removed the code and stopped
collecting any Wi-Fi data.
Consumer Watchdog said an investigation found that the wireless
network of at least one key lawmaker could have been among those
breached by Google’s Street View cars before the code was removed.
The group said its conclusions are based on tests it conducted over
the past few days using the same kind of packet-sniffing technologies
likely used in Google’s Street View cars as they gathered images for the
service, which lets users overlay street-level images on Google Maps.
A company hired by Consumer Watchdog “sniffed” the networks of five
members of Congress whose homes are pictured on Google’s Street View.
The tests uncovered at least one unencrypted network at the residence of
Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), who is chairwoman of the Intelligence
Subcommittee of the Homeland Security Committee, said Jamie Court,
president of the public interest group. The unencrypted network could
have been breached by Google, the consumer group said. Harman couldn’t
be reached for comment.
Court said Consumer Watchdog found unprotected networks near the
homes of four other members of Congress and images of the residences of
at least 18 lawmakers in total on Street View. In a letter sent to
those lawmakers, Consumer Watchdog urged that the House Energy and
Commerce Committee hold an immediate hearing on the issue.
In an e-mail statement sent to Computerworld Thursday,
Google said “it was mistake for us to include code in our software that
collected payload data, but we believe we did nothing illegal. We’re
continuing to work with the relevant authorities to answer their
questions and concerns.”
The company maintains that any information accidentally collected
is likely to be fragmented at best because its Street View cars were
moving and someone would have had to be using a Wi-Fi connection at the
exact moment the car passed by in order for Street View to collect
The Computer and Communications Industry Association yesterday
criticized Consumer Watchdog for making the charges and for the tests
conducted near the homes of lawmakers.
In a statement, Ed Black, president of the Washington-based CCIA,
slammed Consumer Watchdog’s claims and said the information collected by
the consumer group went beyond the type of data collected by Google.
“They detected unsecured Wi-Fi networks that anyone, including
neighbors, can pick up,” Black said. “It proves nothing about what, if
anything, a person or company like Google might have done to intercept
and record data,” Black said.
“What Consumer Watchdog did was not a useful contribution to what
could and should be a broader online privacy debate,” he added.
Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and
privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld.
Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar’s
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