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Google, Wi-Fi Snooping, and the Ever-Shifting 'Creepy' Line

Google, Wi-Fi Snooping, and the Ever-Shifting 'Creepy' Line
Photograph by Mike Groll/AP Photo

Google’s snooping into wireless network data via its Street View cars—behavior that triggered a Federal Communications Commission investigation, as well as multiple lawsuits—is back in the news via a report on Tuesday from the New York Times that identifies the engineer behind the project. But while there has been much public outrage about what Google did, it’s interesting to note that even the FCC said the company’s data capturing wasn’t illegal because the networks in question were effectively public. (The Federal Trade Commission also dropped a similar case.) Is this a sign of how broken the laws around privacy are, or is the Street View furor an overreaction?

The latest information about the case comes from internal Google documents that were given to the FCC as part of its investigation—documents showing that the capture of data other than a Wi-Fi network’s location (which Google engineers referred to as “payload data”) was in fact deliberate and fairly widely known within the company. This contrasts with Google’s official response after the snooping was first discovered, in which the company described it as something that occurred accidentally while Street View cars were driving around taking photos, the result of a single engineer’s side project.