Google says snooping on Wi-Fi networks isn’t illegal

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The Times wrote about the FCC report:

“Although a world leader in digital search capability, Google took the position that searching its employees’ e-mail ‘would be a time-consuming and burdensome task,’” the report said. The commission also noted that Google stymied its efforts to learn more about the data collection because its main architect, an engineer who was not identified, had invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

When the commission asked Google to identify those responsible for the program, Google “unilaterally determined that to do so would ‘serve no useful purpose,’” according to the F.C.C. report.

Google only began providing information to the FCC when threatened with a subpoena, the Times reports.

So why the minuscule fine? That’s the most disturbing part of the entire incident. The FCC said that it wasn’t clear that it is illegal to gather all the data you want from people’s Wi-Fi networks, as long as those networks aren’t encrypted.

Two laws potentially govern snooping on Wi-Fi networks, and because they were written before Wi-Fi existed, it’s unclear whether snooping on unencrypted Wi-Fi is illegal. The Times notes that the Communications Act bans intercepting radio communications “except as authorized by the Wiretap Act.”

According to the Times, the Wiretap Act

says it is “not unlawful to” intercept unencrypted communication, but it does not give specific permission for the interception of unencrypted communications.

Essentially that leaves it up to the courts and federal agencies to interpret illegal Wi-Fi snooping on a case-by-case basis. In Google’s case, the engineer responsible for writing the snooping code refused to give information to the FCC, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. So the FCC simply couldn’t decide if Google clearly violated the laws. So it fined Google $25,000, not for violating the law, but for impeding the investigation.

Google maintains that it did nothing illegal in snooping on unencrypted Wi-Fi networks. It told the Times:

“It was a mistake for us to include code in our software that collected payload data, but we believe we did nothing illegal.”

Read More: Computer World

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