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Tuesday, 07 December 2010 11:36

Google correctly escapes prosecution over Street View privacy breach


Australian authorities have decided not to prosecute Google for the 'inadvertent' collection of personal data by its Street View cars. Quite right too.

Earlier this year, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) was called in by the Commonwealth Attorney-General's Department to consider whether Google's admitted collection of Wi-Fi data was a breach of the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979 (TIA).

Apart from taking photos along Australian roads, the Street View cars also recorded the locations and MAC addresses of any Wi-Fi access points detected. This data can be used to determine the approximate location of a Wi-Fi device that lacks GPS hardware.

Google's story was that the Wi-Fi related code was reused from an earlier project that did need to record data, something that was overlooked by the Street View programmer.

Contrary to at least one report in the Australian media, the ADP did not conclude that Google definitely breached the Act. It merely received advice from an external senior counsel that "the activities of Google may have constituted a breach of the TIA."

It is not unusual for both sides in a legal dispute to receive opinions that their position is well founded in law.

Why I think a prosecution would have been ill-founded - page 2.

If I had been a juror in the trial that never happened, it would have taken a lot to convince me that Google was guilty. I don't have any particular love for the company (and the whole idea of such a giant data warehouse does seem creepy despite its potential benefits), but it seems to me that complaints of breach of privacy in these particular circumstances were misplaced.

If you choose to operate or use an unsecured Wi-Fi network, you have to accept that someone else may listen in. Otherwise, it's like shouting so loudly that you can be heard in the street and then complaining that other people can hear you.

So if you are bothered about this (and you probably should be, if only because of the risk of exposing your usernames and passwords for various web sites) take the Government's advice and set your wireless router to use WPA or WPA2 encryption.

Some of the other advice in that document is questionable. For example, turning off SSID broadcasts doesn't make you any more secure because the SSID is sent by your wireless devices when they connect to the router. A very rough analogy is hiding a key under the doormat - it might not be visible, but it doesn't take a genius to find it.

And if you think hiding your SSID makes an unencrypted network more secure, how can you be sure your computer isn't connecting to your malicious neighbour's wireless LAN that has been set up with the same hidden SSID?

Much the same applies to using MAC filtering. All an attacker needs to do listen to the traffic to find an acceptable MAC address (it normally isn't encrypted even if data is), and then set their computer to use that address. It provides no real improvement in security beyond using WPA/WPA2, but it does mean more work each time you buy a new device or want to provide access for a visitor.

So what was the AFP'S stated reason for dropping the case? Please read on.

(If the latter scenario - visitors with Wi-Fi capable devices - is at all common, consider buying a wireless router that allows for 'guest' access to the Internet only, not to other devices on the WLAN)

But returning to Google and the AFP: "The likelihood of a successful criminal prosecution in this matter is considered to be low," according to an AFP spokesperson, so in the light of Google's undertakings to the Australian Privacy Commissioner the matter has been dropped. As it should.


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Stephen Withers

Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.

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