Google denies ties between patent application, Wi-Fi snooping

CEO Eric Schmidt blames rogue engineer for privacy fiasco

Google has denied that there was any link between a 2008 patent application and the current privacy debacle over its Street View vehicles snatching information from unsecured wireless networks.

Instead, the company's CEO has blamed a single Google engineer for the mess.

"That patent application is entirely unrelated to the software code used to collect Wi-Fi information with Street View cars," said a Google spokesman in an e-mail.

Her response was a reaction to questions about a lawsuit filed in an Oregon federal court that cited a November 2008 patent application for technology to gather, analyze and use data sent by users over their wireless networks.

The lawsuit, which was filed by an Oregon woman and a Washington man in a Portland, Ore. federal court on May 17, and amended June 2, accused Google of violating federal privacy and data acquisition laws when its Street View vehicles snatched data from unprotected Wi-Fi networks in the U.S.

Google acknowledged the privacy issue May 14, but said it had not known it was collecting data from unprotected wireless networks until it conducted an audit after complaints by German data privacy authorities.

The amended lawsuit claimed that there was a link between the technology Google wants to patent and the Wi-Fi snooping the company conducted for several years.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt, however, pointed a finger at an unnamed Google engineer.

In an interview with the Financial Times , Schmidt said Google is conducting an internal investigation against the software engineer responsible for the rogue code the company claimed was added without its knowledge to its Street View photo-taking and wireless network-locating vehicles. According to the newspaper, Schmidt said the code was in "clear violation" of company rules.

Schmidt declined to confirm that the engineer had created the code -- it was devised while driving around the Stanford University campus checking for Wi-Fi networks -- was a "20% time" project. Google allows employees to pursue their own projects one-fifth of their work time.

Google did not reply today to a follow-up request for confirmation on Schmidt's comments to the Financial Times .

Yesterday, Google gave in to demands from European regulators that it hand over the data it secretly collected from wireless networks. The practice is under investigation by authorities in several European countries, including the Czech Republic, France, Germany Spain and Italy. In the U.S., Google faces at least seven civil lawsuits over its snooping, including the Oregon case, while the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has said it will take a "very, very close look" at the company's Wi-Fi data collection methods.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld . Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com .

Read more about privacy in Computerworld's Privacy Topic Center.

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Gregg Keizer

Computerworld (US)
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