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Posted on May 28th, 2012 by Barry Collins

Why Google almost certainly didn’t steal your sex secrets

Sunday Times Street View story

The arrival of our mini-heatwave appears to have tricked some of our national newspapers into thinking “silly season” has arrived. Both The Sunday Times and The Daily Mail have led with front-page splashes about Google’s Street View data harvesting – both based on a report by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that we and many others reported on when it was published over a month ago.

It’s not the newspapers’ late arrival to the story that has me pounding my keyboard in frustration, however. It’s the sensationalist exaggeration of the Street View data collection that has triggered a sudden spike in my blood pressure.

This new wave of reports has been triggered by the revelation that a Google engineer warned his bosses in advance that the software installed in the Google Street View cars would collect user traffic  – undermining the company’s long-held claim that the data was collected “mistakenly”.

It’s hard to conceive of a more stupid, inefficient way to conduct mass surveillance of the nation than fitting snooping software into the Street View cars

That Google allowed this software to be used in its Street View cars is nothing short of shameful, as is the lack of any meaningful punishment from our own Information Commissioner’s Office and data protection authorities worldwide.

Even more shameful, however, is the way in which the newspapers have wildly over-egged the data-harvesting capability of the Street View cars.

Take the headline on The Sunday Times story, for example: “Your emails, sex secrets and health details – all harvested by Google”. The chances of Google capturing any one of those things – let alone all three – are only slightly higher than your chances of winning this Saturday’s lottery and having the cheque presented by Princess Diana.  Here’s why.

How Street View harvested data

The software in Google’s Street View cars could only collect payload data from Wi-Fi connections that weren’t password-protected. An unsupported stat in The Daily Mail story claims one in four Wi-Fi routers isn’t secured; but assuming that data is accurate, that still means Google’s cars could potentially collect personal data from only a quarter of the houses they passed.

What’s more, the cars can only collect data during the few seconds they pass your house when taking Street View photography. Google doesn’t have a fleet of thousands of Street View cars driving down your road every day: my street in Sussex was last photographed in 2009, for example. And because Google wants nice, well-lit photos of our streets, its cars operate during the daytime – when most people are at work and not using their internet connection.

In other words, the window of opportunity for Google’s Street View cars to collect data was tiny: a few seconds every three or four years.

Even assuming that Google did manage to capture your net traffic as its cars passed your house on your day off, the chances of it capturing anything sensitive are extremely slim. The FCC report states the payload data “included email and text messages, passwords, internet usage history, and other highly sensitive personal information”; but it also acknowledges that much of this data would have been encrypted, even if the Wi-Fi connection itself wasn’t.

For example, if you were logged into your online bank account, the data passing between your computer and the bank would be encrypted. Unless Google had the encryption keys (it didn’t), all it would see is an indecipherable deluge of 1s and Os.  It might be able to work out which bank you used, but nothing else.

In short, only if you were sending an unencrypted email to your doctor with details of a sexually transmitted disease you picked up from the woman you’re having an affair with at No 42, at the exact moment the Google Street View car passed your unsecured Wi-Fi connection, would Google have had access to your “emails, sex secrets and health details”, as The Sunday Times claims.

Indeed, it’s hard to conceive of a more stupid, inefficient way to conduct mass surveillance of the nation than fitting snooping software into the Street View cars. But let’s not let that get in the way of a good headline, eh?

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18 Responses to “ Why Google almost certainly didn’t steal your sex secrets ”

  1. David Knowles Says:
    May 28th, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    It a well known fact, hot weather = silly season, mainly because our not to intelligence parliamentries or celebrities are to busy sun bathing to make stupid laws, break laws or just act plain stupid.

     
  2. MJ Says:
    May 28th, 2012 at 3:13 pm

    So, an organisation based on selling dead-tree products raises fear about using the internet? I’m surprised.

    I wonder if they are also rattling cages to show that they can do damage in case you should threaten the publishers interests.

     
  3. Peterb Says:
    May 28th, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    They’re missing the true story:
    “Idiots with unsecured wifi access points broadcast their emails, sex secrets and health details to the world”.

     
  4. Bonsai Says:
    May 29th, 2012 at 9:47 am

    As ridiculous as the press claims are, let’s not forget that Google brought this upon themselves by denying and lying about the data, how much and how it got collected.

    Not only that, but they did it in a high handed way that gave the impression they have little respect for the public they depend on.

    A little more humbleness and a little less evil is probably the only policy now to make up for this demeanour in the future.

    http://www.techradar.com/news/internet/google-could-face-investigation-into-street-view-wardriving-claims-1082283

     
  5. cactiform Says:
    May 29th, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    On the other hand, anyone who uses Google to search for pawn is definitely giving away all their sex secrets to Google. Compared to data mining of Google seach, WiFi snooping is almost irrelevant.

     
  6. Dick Says:
    May 31st, 2012 at 4:53 am

    why the f**k can’t half of you bastards spell? You sit here thinking you’re so smart and you can’t spell?

     
  7. Crimson_Pirate Says:
    May 31st, 2012 at 7:30 am

    Nice one Dick…lol
    Over the past few months i have been thinking the same thing.
    If i had been searching for pawn you might think i was an avid chest oops oh er ,,i mean chess player.
    It’s simple enough to click the “check” button on the Google task bar is it not?

     
  8. Simon Says:
    May 31st, 2012 at 8:22 am

    The press are always exaggerating and lying – not just in silly season.

    Spend some time on http://tabloid-watch.blogspot.co.uk/ and then weep at the state of our press.

    Unfortunately, too many people use the Sun, the Mail, the Express etc as the single source of their news.

     
  9. Ian Says:
    May 31st, 2012 at 8:22 am

    Dick

    Your grammer is apalling. Also use a capital letter at the start of a sentence.

    A user can’t ’sit here’, they are sitting at home. They can write or post here.

    Not such a clever dick now?

     
  10. Simon Says:
    May 31st, 2012 at 8:29 am

    @ Dick/Crimson_Pirate

    1) It’s possible that cactiform meant to type ‘pawn’ instead of ‘porn’. Possibly for the sake of humour. Possibly to avoid some sort of rude word filter. We don’t know.

    2) I don’t have a Google task bar (I don’t want it) but I imagine it ‘checks’ the spelling and as pawn is an actual word, why would it correct it?

     
  11. Terry Says:
    May 31st, 2012 at 9:28 am

    Whilst I agree both spelling and grammar in these comments boxes leave a lot to be desired, you should also know sentences should not begin with “and” or “also”. However, journalists who should know better, break this rule on just about every page they write.

     
  12. Jo Buckley Says:
    May 31st, 2012 at 10:33 am

    Great read & so right, My own lap-top has a lovely little switch to Allow/prevent wi-fi use.

    thought this was for comments on article, not other posters’ bad grammar Etc;But that said, have any of You guys tried searching for a specific Person or Word & got redirected to A “Google” or other Search Engines Sponsored Ad site instead for an inappropriate item?

     
  13. poglad Says:
    May 31st, 2012 at 10:34 am

    While this article is definitely correct, as things stand today, the fact remains that in future it will certainly be practical to crack those encryption keys on the short bursts of data collected. Even though only a few packets were collected from each household, a future generation will still regard this as a treasure-trove of snapshot data when it gets it decrypted. As for the Daily Mail – this is par for the course. Little of what they print is true.

     
  14. Magnus Says:
    May 31st, 2012 at 10:38 am

    the “one in four Wi-Fi routers isn’t secured” stat may be true if it includes all the publicly available wifi services such as btfon, btopenzone, coffe shops, etc. which have unsecured access, but only to a login page.

     
  15. Prawn Says:
    May 31st, 2012 at 2:07 pm

    I’m sure he meant prawn, we’re mad for the internet us.

    As has been previously mentioned, Google know more about me than my parents and wife do. This particular episode was arrogant and pointlessly daft, but it is very much a mountain out of a molehill.
    What happened to running around with burning torches and pitchforks wailing about Facebook privacy? I was enjoying that.

     
  16. colin Says:
    May 31st, 2012 at 4:43 pm

    Isn’t pawn the third most searched for term after porn and pron?

     
  17. Murray Says:
    June 1st, 2012 at 12:27 am

    It’s a believable story as it comes from the press who are well known experts in the field of privacy invasion.

    Apologies in advance to the self appointed English language experts for any errors in my spelling or grammar.

     
  18. Steve Says:
    June 14th, 2012 at 6:54 pm

    And also, I search for pawn.

     

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