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BLOG: Why Google should be allowed to 'harvest' your Wi-Fi data

Mike Elgan | April 23, 2012
The FCC cleared Google of wrongdoing in the so-called 'WiSpy' case. It was the right call, says columnist Mike Elgan, because Google did nothing wrong.

The Federal Communications Commission cleared Google of wrongdoing in the so-called "WiSpy" case. It was the right decision.

Why? Because Google didn't do anything wrong.

Two years ago, Google said its Street View cars had been "harvesting" information from Wi-Fi networks, including personal home networks, as a matter of course.

In some cases, data gathered included passwords, e-mail messages and browser information.

The data gathering was accidental. Google as an organization didn't mean to collect this information. But even if it had meant to, there would be nothing wrong with doing so. I'll tell you why later.

The FCC did charge Google a pathetic $25,000 fine for taking too long to respond to requests for information during the investigation. But it didn't levy any fine for the actual data harvesting. Inconvenient truth: In a country ruled by law, you can't legally punish people or companies when they haven't in fact broken an actual law.

Still, critics are coming out of the woodwork to denounce both Google and the FCC.

"FCC's Ruling that Google's Wi-Fi Snooping is Legal Sets Horrible Precedent," said PC World's John P. Mello Jr. "Google Breaches Highlight Need for Regulation," said Jason Magder of the Montreal Gazette.

And as they tend to do in such cases, the pandering politicians are trying to get in front of the parade.

For example, U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) this week issued a statement that says "The circumstances surrounding Google's surreptitious siphoning of personal information leave many unanswered questions. I believe Congress should immediately hold a hearing to get to the bottom of this serious situation."

Other countries, including Germany, France and Australia, concluded (unlike the FCC) that Google was guilty of wrongdoing.

Australian Minister for Communications Stephen Conroy called the it the " largest privacy breach in the history across western democracies." The Australian government forced Google to publicly apologize.

France made Google pay a $142,000 fine.

The global consensus is that Google's so-called "snooping" was an invasion of privacy, accidental or otherwise.

Unfortunately, this consensus is based on emotion and knee-jerk populism, rather than facts and reason.

Let's try something different. Let's analyze what actually happened.

Wi-Fi is radio broadcast over the public airwaves

The hyperbolic accusations against Google imply that the company electronically reached into people's homes, breached their Wi-Fi systems, took data and stored it in a database.

That's not what happened.

Google did not harvest data from inside people's homes. Google plucked data from the public airwaves -- data that was voluntarily broadcast into those airwaves by the owners of that data.

In the U.S., the airwaves belong to the public.


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