Google’s Wardriving ’Engineer Doe’ at Center of Probe

Google Street View
Google’s Street View cars, which capture images of buildings and terrain as seen from roadways, also took in private data from 2007 to 2010 including, for instance, messages between a man and woman seeking an extra-marital relationship, the Federal Communications Commission said. Photo: Pedro Ladeira/AFP/Getty Images

Before he became the Google Inc. worker identified as “Engineer Doe” in a U.S. probe of data gathering, Marius Milner wrote software that invigorated a hobby called “wardriving.”

The practice, in which enthusiasts drive around neighborhoods to locate wireless connections, was named after the Matthew Broderick film “WarGames,” about a video-game enthusiast who accidentally hacks into military computers.

“He is a GOD in the wireless community,” John Kleinschmidt, a network engineer from Michigan, said in a message on Milner’s page on the LinkedIn social network.

Milner’s expertise as shown through the wardriving program, called NetStumbler, eventually led him to Google and its Street View project, which is being investigated by U.S. states.

Street View’s cars went beyond mapping wireless connections to take in people’s communications sent over their networks, including messages between a man and woman seeking an extra-marital relationship, according to U.S. Federal Communications Commission documents.

Google, owner of the largest search engine, was fined $25,000 by the FCC on April 13 for impeding the agency’s investigation.

The employee who designed Street View’s software, referred to only as “Engineer Doe” in FCC records, invoked his right against self-incrimination and declined to be interviewed by the FCC, the agency said May 2 as it released a version of its inquiry’s conclusions. The agency said it wouldn’t seek penalties under U.S. wiretap laws because there wasn’t clear precedent, and Engineer Doe’s silence left questions unanswered.

NetStumbler Project

Milner was previously identified as ‘Engineer Doe’ by the New York Times. In a brief interview with Bloomberg at his Palo Alto, California, home May 2, he refused to confirm or deny the connection. “You know what I’m going to say -- you have my lawyer’s name,” he said. “I have no comment.”

Niki Fenwick, a Google spokeswoman, declined to comment for the story. Martha Boersch, Milner’s San Francisco-based lawyer, also declined comment.

Milner, 41, worked at Lucent Technologies Inc. and communications-gear maker Avaya Holdings Corp. before being hired at Google in 2003, according to his LinkedIn page. He now works for its YouTube unit.

Milner has served as the self-employed chief technology officer for NetStumbler since 2001, according to the LinkedIn page. His software was used by enthusiasts who wandered streets with a laptop and competed to spot the greatest number of nodes serving up a wireless signal, or Wi-Fi, Kleinschmidt, who tested some of Milner’s code, said in an interview.

‘Benign Tool’

Wardriving as a hobby has faded as Wi-Fi has grown from a curiosity to a widely available utility. Smartphones and laptop computers now are commonly manufactured with the capability to detect wireless networks.

At the peak of the hobby’s popularity, NetStumbler enthusiasts on message boards would admonish and banish users who asked about using the software for capturing personal information, Kleinschmidt said. “It was a mapping software, that’s all it was,” he said.

NetStumbler “was a benign tool” that didn’t collect personal data, Benjamin Kern, a Chicago-based partner who practices technology law at McGuireWoods, said in an interview.

“Wardriving I would primarily characterize as a sport, as a fun hobby-type thing,” Kern said.

Personal Data

Engineer Doe worked on Street View during the 20 percent of time that Google allots to all employees for personal projects, the FCC said.

The Street View tool he crafted was based on software different from NetStumbler, and was intended to collect information about what people were doing as they used their Wi-Fi, according to the FCC. Engineer Doe examined the data gathered to see if it could be used in other Google products, the agency said.

He at least twice told colleagues the Street View cars were collecting payload data, or personal information carried by the wireless signal, according to the FCC. Engineer Doe sent an e-mail of his draft software code to Street View’s project leaders, and they forwarded the e-mail to all members of the team, Google said in response to questions from the FCC, according to the agency.

The company earlier claimed the data collection was “the work of one engineer,” the agency said.

Data Collection Investigations

Mountain View, California-based Google’s data collection remains under investigation by 42 states, Susan Kinsman, a spokeswoman for Connecticut’s attorney general, said in an interview.

European Union privacy regulators also said this week that are looking into Street View’s activities, particularly whether the company was aware it was gathering and storing information it didn’t need.

Google never had “a company plan to collect payload data,” Al Verney, a spokesman for Google in Brussels, said yesterday. “We made a mistake, we admitted it and we have cooperated with regulators around the globe to put this matter behind us.”

Milner is well regarded in the “white-hat” hacking community, which focuses on fixing technology, said Don Bailey, chief executive officer of Capitol Hill Consultants, a San Francisco-based company focused on wireless security.

Defining ‘Use’

He had a reputation of being “very above-board” among Wi-Fi trackers, Ted Morgan, chief executive officer of Boston-based location-services company Skyhook, a Google rival, said in an interview. Skyhook in a lawsuit has accused Google of sabotaging plans by Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. to use Skyhook software. Google says it’s done nothing wrong.

Among wardriving enthusiasts last decade, “No one did payload collection,” Morgan said. ‘It was pretty much known that was a bad thing to do.’’

A 2002 posting on the forum that carries Milner’s name advises readers that, “In most places, it is illegal to use a network without permission from the owner.

‘‘The definition of ‘use’ is not entirely clear, but it definitely includes using someone else’s Internet connection or gathering information about what is on the network.’’

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