Google Australia executives yesterday continued to insist that the company’s spying on home Wi-Fi networks was a “mistake”, in the wake of a bitter attack on the company’s actions by Australian Comms and Broadband Minister Stephen Conroy, who told a Senate hearing Google’s action was “the single greatest breach in the history of privacy”.Google is facing a number of international investigations, including possible criminal court action in Germany and a Privacy Commission probe in Australia, following revelations that the company’s sniffer cars – purportedly taking photographs of streets for its Google Earth application – also were wired to capture transmissions from Wi-Fi installations, including home networks.
Google claims the aim was simply to record Wi-Fi networks’ addresses – though it’s not explained why it wanted this information – and that “by mistake” the cars had actually captured 600 gigabytes of “payload” from many unsecured networks.
The company received a ministerial blast from Conroy on that matter on Monday when he appeared before a Senate Estimates hearing and was asked if he believed the data capture was accidental.
He rejected that line, saying Google’s action was “quite deliberate” – adding under questioning: “They wrote a piece of code designed to do it”.
His statements were depicted in some sections of the online media yesterday as payback for Google executives having criticised his plans for an Internet filter, but this was denied by the Minister’s office.
At yesterday’s Google media conference in Sydney – called to promote decisions made at last week’s Google I/O conference in San Francisco – engineering head Alan Munro patiently repeated the company mantra that the Wi-Fi gathering exercise was a “mistake”. He wasn’t pressed on the question of why the sniffer cars were recording Wi-Fi material in private suburban areas at all, or just how legal or otherwise their intrusion may have been. – David Frith