The Plot Sickens: Google’s Snooper Scooper Wardriving Is Unraveling—Part 1

[Editor Charlie sez: This post appeared on May 2 and we thought it should be reposted in light of the House Energy & Commerce Committee hearing on the FCC on July 10]


You told her four lies that now have to be true.”

Spy Games, 2001

MTP readers will remember several posts on the Google WiSpy debacle over the last few years.  Based on the recently disclosed FCC order fining Google for obstructing the FCC’s investigation, this situation has suddenly become very serious indeed (see, e.g., “Is It Time to Stop Trusting Google?”.

The problem for Google boils down to this:  Google pretty clearly lied about what they were up to with their managed driving program also known as Street View.  Google also told the same lies to several different investigating agencies in several different countries:  the U.S., the U.K., Germany and South Korea.  While the consequences of telling the lie may vary depending on the country and the agency being lied to, the motivation behind the lie is the same in each case: obstruction of justice.

And then of course, Google was ultimately lying to its customers.

80% or 20%?

One of the supposed perks that Google offers its employees—or more likely its engineers—“enabling engineers to spend one day a week working on projects that aren’t necessarily in our job descriptions.”  Like everything at Google, read that sentence carefully—“aren’t necessarily in our job descriptions.”  So the “20% time” projects could be within the engineer’s job description.  In which case–would it be an 80% job, a 20% job or a 100% job?

Google seems to have simultaneously created two projects, Street View and Wi-Spy that launched about the same time.  One, Street View, was supposedly a “job description” project.  The other, Wi-Spy was supposedly the work of a single engineer, a “rogue” engineer operating on his own, a 20% Time project.

But before considering some of the problems for Google—let us turn to that great Cartesian thinker, Chico Marx, who famously said, “Will you believe me or your own eyes?”

If you were going to launch Wi-Spy without Street View, how far do you think that would have gotten?  Remember—Wi-Spy was operating secretly as part of the Street View managed driving program for several years.  We all became aware of Google’s Street View cars when they began taking pictures of our homes and offices.  But imagine if there were no Street View program—just Wi-Spy?  How far do you think that would have gotten?

Hi this is the cool and cuddly Google car that’s going to drive by your house and suck down your unencrypted data.

Don’t you think that one of the first things that would happen is that consumers would have made sure that their Wi-Fi networks were protected against Google, thus making it more difficult for Google to slurp down the private information?

And then the next thing would have been that consumers called the police?

And wouldn’t privacy protection agencies have at least tried to create an opt out system comparable to Street View?

On the other hand, if Google’s managed driving program looked like it was just taking pictures of your house and you could—in theory—“opt out” of Street View by “pixelating” or “blurring” your home in Street View, perhaps people would be more accepting of the photography.

Particularly if no one told them that their personal data was being slurped down at the same time.  And of course the reason that no one told them is because it is very likely illegal in at least the U.S., Canada, Europe and parts of Asia.

Which then raises the question of the supposed “rogue engineer” also known as Engineer Doe in the FCC’s orders.  Do you believe as I do that the purpose of Street View was to mask the Wi-Spy program from consumers and regulators by diverting attention away from the true purpose of those weird looking cars driving up and down every street?  Does it then seem at all plausible that the Wi-Spy program was Engineer Doe’s 20% job or does it seem more likely to have been his 80% job?

Whatever you believe, it is increasingly clear that Google intended to pin all of its Wi-Spy problems on a single employee.  Hanging one of their engineers out to dry was part of—if not their entire—strategy for avoiding coming clean about what their intentions really were or ultimately taking the punishment for what now appear to be truly extraordinary actions that violated the privacy of millions of people on several continents.

One feels that the punishment for these acts should certainly fit the crime.  And even though these acts certainly feel like crimes, it is just implausible to think that the perp was just Engineer Doe acting alone.

Who’s Redacting Whom?

As I noted in a prior post and as the world seems to know now, the FCC issued its Notice of Apparent Liability (“NAL”) in the Wi-Spy case with substantial redactions.  The FCC has written policies about redactions, none of which seem to apply in the Wi-Spy case.  These policies require the FCC to disclose its reasons for redacting information, and it needs to have reasons as one might expect that due process would require of a federal agency.

The FCC failed to provide any such reasons and as of this writing has yet to provide those reasons.  The FCC simply censored the NAL without explanation.

Now imagine for a moment—just a moment—that if instead of the target of the FCC’s NAL being Google it was, say, Clear Channel.  Or Comcast.  How do you think that the press would have reacted?

Last Friday, Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a FOIA request with the U.S. Department of Justice for an unredacted copy of the FCC order—AS WELL AS all records including “communications” relating to the DOJ’s investigation into whether Google violated the Wiretap Act (the statute at issue).  EPIC requested that the FOIA be processed in 10 calendar days.

The next morning—Saturday– Google released a nearly unredacted copy of the NAL to the loving arms of the Los Angeles Times.  You have to ask yourself what was the point of doing that?

Bianca Keybach, the head of the Oberstaufen tourist office in Bavaria

Next in Part 2—What happens to the EPIC FOIA, who is Engineer Doe and where does the McCain Trollette fit in?