Reading this NYT article in the Sunday Patriot-News, I couldn’t help but think that the officials that are up in arms about Google’s “inadvertent” Wi-Fi data collection are ignorant about the security available when web browsing:

“Google is in the process of frittering away its last shred of credibility,” Mr. [Till] Steffen [the justice senator for the city-state of Hamburg] said. “The company must immediately disclose to what degree it has secretly eavesdropped as we’ve sent e-mails to friends in Germany and the rest of Europe or as we’ve done our banking in the Internet.”

This prompts a question: are there still banks that don’t use HTTPS when dealing with customers’ sensitive data over the internet?  Even if someone is using open, unencrypted Wi-Fi, their HTTPS session data is protected with encryption.  That would also be the case for any other protocols that encrypt their payload end-to-end (POP3S, SFTP, SSH, etc.).  For example, I use HTTPS sessions by default with Gmail and Google Reader.

The cited German privacy laws as they apply to electronic communications seem to be a way to compensate for the ignorance of those who implement and use this technology in unsecure ways.  I’m not a fan of Google’s collection of that data, but I don’t think that they are on the wrong side of this issue.  Wi-Fi is a broadcast-based technology using public airwaves, and if you’re not securing your broadcast you’re open to being spied upon.

I think the bigger issue here is whether the benefits of technologies like Street View and Wi-Fi-based geolocation outweigh the personal liberty of people whose image or data might be caught by a machine.  Would it make a difference if the Street View vehicles had a bunch of photographers in the back as opposed to automated cameras?  If they had nerds wardriving with laptops as opposed to automated Wi-Fi sniffers/collectors?  I can only recommend that you protect your communcations and wear a mask in public if you’re worried about this kind of stuff.  Or, for now, move to Germany. 🙂

Yes, I’m a fan of Google in general and Street View in particular.  It’s nice to be able to view pictures of an unfamiliar location before having to navigate it for the first time.