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Google Street View privacy scandal broadens

Reports cast doubt on Google's assurances that it did not realize its street-mapping cars were snatching personal data from home Wi-Fi networks and that one lone engineer was to blame.

May 01, 2012|By Jessica Guynn and David Sarno, Los Angeles Times
  • Matt Potter pedals Google's Street View Tricycle in a park near Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.
Matt Potter pedals Google's Street View Tricycle in a park near Google's… (Paul Sakuma, Associated…)

SAN FRANCISCO — It looks likeGoogle Inc.won't be able to put the Street View privacy scandal in its rear-view mirror any time soon.

A newly unredacted report from federal investigators and fresh information about the engineer behind the data collecting software are casting doubt on Google's assurances that it did not realize that its street-mapping cars were snatching personal data from Wi-Fi networks used by millions of unsuspecting households.

Google has blamed the data collection on a lone engineer, but the report suggests that the practice was known more widely within the company.

The revelations could trigger congressional hearings and reignite the controversy that Google may have thought was behind it when several federal regulatory agencies closed their investigations without bringing any charges.

"Google's motto has always been 'Do no evil.' It should also be 'Do no eavesdropping,'" said Rep. Edward J. Markey(D-Mass.), senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "Google needs to fully explain to Congress and the public what it knew about the collection of data through its Street View program."

In addition to a potential congressional probe, a coalition of more than 40 state attorneys general, led by Connecticut and including California and New York, is pressing ahead with its inquiry.

Consumers have also filed nearly a dozen civil lawsuits that they hope to combine into a class action in federal court while privacy watchdogs are hounding Google and accusing the Federal Communications Commission of botching its investigation into the search giant.

The FCC began investigating Google after the company acknowledged in 2010 that its Street View cars "mistakenly" collected personal data that was being sent and received on home Wi-Fi networks. The main purpose of the cars was to photograph streets for the company's popular Google maps service.

The FCC found that Google did not violate wiretapping laws, but it fined the company $25,000 for obstructing the probe, saying in a heavily redacted report that Google was slow to cooperate in identifying the engineers involved in the Street View project.

But on Friday the Los Angeles Times obtained an unredacted version, which revealed for the first time that the engineer in question, "Engineer Doe," had informed several members of the Street View team that he had written software code to scoop data from Wi-Fi networks. The engineer refused to testify in the FCC probe, invoking his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.

On Tuesday, the New York Times identified the engineer as Marius Milner, a wireless networking specialist noted for his work on "wardriving." In the obscure tech hobby, laptop-toting enthusiasts drive around trying to locate and categorize as many local wireless networks as they can.

A former colleague who posted a recommendation of Milner on his LinkedIn page described him as a "god" in the wireless community.

Though Google attempted to paint Engineer Doe as an employee acting on his own, industry officials said it would be difficult for one engineer to alter an important part of such a large system — one affecting hundreds of cars using software that required regular updating and that generated huge amounts of data.

"It's virtually impossible to string together a system like that and have only one person know about it," said Ted Morgan, chief executive of Skyhook Inc., a wireless data company that worked with Google before the companies became rivals when Skyhook teamed up withApple Inc.

Skyhook is now suing Google over allegations that the search giant pressured phone makers to drop Skyhook's location software. But in 2006, Skyhook cooperated with Google on a program to make Wi-Fi ubiquitous, Morgan said, and Milner was one of the technology leads on the project.

"He was actually considered a very good guy — he never came across as an Anonymous-type hacker or anything," Morgan said.

Discussing Milner's alleged role in the Wi-Fi controversy, Morgan said, "I refuse to believe it was him on his own — it doesn't seem like him as a person and it doesn't seem possible."

Milner could have sold the rights to his popular wardriving software, called NetStumbler, or started his own company with it, but instead he chose to give it away, Morgan said. Milner became a wireless engineer at Google soon after.

Without admitting that he was the one who wrote the code, Milner told the New York Times on Sunday that depicting Engineer Doe as a rogue engineer "requires putting a lot of dots together."

Martha Boersch, a San Francisco lawyer representing Milner, declined to comment. A Google spokesman also declined to comment.

Milner did not answer phone calls and did not come to the door of his Palo Alto home Tuesday evening. But a minivan sitting in the driveway had a Google license plate frame with the slogan "I'm feeling lucky."

jessica.guynn@latimes.com

david.sarno@latimes.com

Sarno reported from Los Angeles and Guynn from San Francisco.

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