Google's Wi-Fi snooping lessons

The man at the centre of the Google Street View scandal has been publicly unmasked but is it fair to scapegoat him for the privacy debacle?

The New York Times claims to have uncovered the identity of the Google software engineer who wrote the code used by Street View cars when they controversially scooped up private Wi-Fi data including emails, text messages, browsing histories and passwords.

According to the newspaper, Marius Milner of Palo Alto, California is "Engineer Doe" - the coder named only pseudonymously in an official FCC report that revealed Google staff knew for years about the Street View data breach.

As his LinkedIn profile reveals, Milner is also the author of "NetStumbler", a well-regarded wardriving program that helps discover wireless networks.

Marius Milner's LinkedIn profile

The code written by Google, and deployed in the Street View vehicles, was called "gstumbler" (later renamed "gslite").

In my opinion, it would be wrong to scapegoat Milner for the privacy debacle caused by the Street View cars slurping of too much information from Wi-Fi hotspots.

To do: discuss privacy considerations

For some time, Google maintained that the problem was entirely down to a "rogue engineer", but the recently released report reveals that Milner/"Engineer Doe" "Engineer Doe" told colleagues in 2007 and 2008 about the sensitive nature of the data being collected by the Street View mapping cars, and suggested that the project should be reviewed for privacy issues.

That privacy review never took place.

Clearly there are lessons to be learnt here by project managers as well as software engineers.

Management should carefully peruse project plans, proposals and specifications to fully understand the scope of the code that is being written, and what is intended to be done with any data that comes out of the process.

And engineers need to learn that just because data can be collected, doesn't mean that it should.

Graham Cluley is a senior technology consultant for Sophos and a writer for Sophos Security blog. You can see his profile and his other work here. 

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