Google Wi-Fi snooping should serve as security wakeup call

The search giant's security screw up provides a cautionary tale about the inherent risks of wireless computing.

The continuing saga of Google's wireless snooping and the maelstrom it's generated won't end anytime soon. Peeved government officials in both Europe and the U.S. are pressing Google for more details on how the search company's Street View cars managed to cull personal data from Wi-Fi networks that weren't password-protected.

Google, in a May 17 blog post, owned up to the gaffe, which it called an accident. Despite the firm's mea culpa, a US District Court in Portland, Oregon on Monday ordered Google to turn over two copies of the data it collected from open Wi-Fi networks in the United States. And at least four lawsuits in California, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Washington D.C. have been filed by people accusing Google of violating their privacy, Reuters reports.

You May Be Next

The tech-savvy among us may be tempted to sneer at naïve folk who use unprotected wireless networks. Indeed, it's probably fair to say that Google's Wi-Fi victims should've known better. But don't get too cocky. Wireless-eavesdropping technology is growing more sophisticated, and unaware business users could easily fall victim to clever snoops.

After all, maybe you're not as savvy as you thing. Have you ever used public-access Wi-Fi, maybe to fire off a quick email or handle another business-related chore--but didn't bother to take any security precautions? Most likely the answer is "yes," even though you know the risks.

Even if you're working from a coffee shop with password-protected Wi-Fi, you're still not safe from eavesdroppers. Why? Because other wireless users in the café are using the same password as you, and they can see your traffic if they want to.

Quick Steps to Take

To thwart email snoops, use a Webmail service that has HTTPS (an encrypted connection) for your entire mail session. This is important because nearly all Webmail systems, with the exception of Gmail and most likely your company's Webmail client, use HTTPS only for logins, a practice that allows other users on the wireless network to read your email.

If your company provides a virtual private network (VPN)--an encrypted data highway back to the office--be sure to use it when you're at a free or subscription Wi-Fi hotspot.

Even with these precautions, you're never 100-percent safe on a wireless network. Recent university research shows that snoops may soon be able to use a malware program called a "bugbot" to hijack your cell phone's mic and listen to your conversations via a nearby laptop or mobile phone. And while cell phone malware is still relatively rare, it's growing rapidly.

For more information on how to secure your wireless activities, read: "How to Stay Safe on Public Wi-Fi" by Steven Andrés; and "Bugnets Could Spy on You via Mobile Devices" by Robert Vamosi.

Contact Jeff Bertolucci via Twitter or at jbertolucci.blogspot.com.

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Jeff Bertolucci

PC World (US online)
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