Google WiFi Data Caught In Legal Limbo

from the can't-destroy,-can't-share,-can't-have dept

As governments around the world continue to go overboard in their condemnations of Google's (admittedly bad) collection of open WiFi data via its Street View cars, much more interesting than the political grandstanding is the legal limbo mess that the collected data has been placed into. After realizing that it had accidentally collected this data, Google announced that it would stop collecting and begin deleting the data it collected (Update: more specifically, it said it wanted to delete the data, but would discuss with regulators before doing so). But that raised alarm bells from some, who worried that doing so would be deleting evidence for a possible lawsuit against Google. Then, governments started demanding that Google share the data with regulators, so they could determine how serious a privacy breach this really was. However, Google is noting that sharing the data would be a violation of privacy rights in many countries, pissing off regulators who put those privacy laws in place in the first place.

So... Google can't collect this data, but it can't delete the data it accidentally collected. Regulators want to see the data to see if it's okay for Google to delete it, but they can't see it, because that would violate privacy regulations. But, regulators feel they need to see it, to see if Google violated privacy regulations. So, basically everyone's stuck in a state of limbo.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 27th, 2010 @ 4:16pm

    Google can delete the data, but only if they don't want to delete the data. Because you see if they want to delete the data it must be because they don't want it used against them. But if they want it used against them then they must be crazy. But if they were crazy, then they wouldn't have to fly the missions. But once they asked not to fly the missions they'd be sane, and thus have to fly them, which they'd be crazy to do.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 27th, 2010 @ 4:26pm

    I'm curious. Why does Google get the benefit of the doubt (i.e., it says it was an accident, so it was an accident). Other large corporate behemoths certainly don't get such a benefit of the doubt on Techdirt.

    What's the distinction?

     

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      Esahc (profile), May 27th, 2010 @ 4:31pm

      Re:

      I think the distinction lies in the admission. Google admitted to the indiscretion prior to being caught (at least that's my understanding from various news sources).

       

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        Undisclosed Wimp, May 27th, 2010 @ 4:41pm

        Re: Re:

        I think it is also because Google has a somewhat clean record.

        Can't remember when was the last time Google screwed up big time on something and made people seriously mad.

         

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      Ryan, May 27th, 2010 @ 4:39pm

      Re:

      Well, I imagine it doesn't have anything to do with Google or "large corporate behemoths" or anything stereotypical like that. It probably has to do with the specifics of the case, as things ought to be judged. Of course, it doesn't hurt from my perspective that Google has a history of transparency and consumer-friendly policies.

      In this case, it was completely unsecured data transmissions that were momentarily picked up, of which Google volunteered the nature of and promised to delete immediately. That sounds like about as benign a data breach as there is, and if I were going to prioritize the most alarming data collections it would probably start with many of these very governments and continue with a number of other entities that are perhaps not so transparent or willing to cede their information.

       

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      Anonymous Coward, May 27th, 2010 @ 5:26pm

      Re:

      Why is it that when other corporations intentionally do something extremely wrong (ie: Pfizer breaking FDA rules and having a subsidiary blamed) governments go easy on them but when Google accidentally does something very minor that's not even really wrong, governments pretend they did something extremely wrong and completely overreact?

       

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      Anonymous Coward, May 27th, 2010 @ 10:46pm

      Re:

      I'm actually curious as to which countries laws were broken.

      In the US, data from public airwaves is free game (oddly enough, except for law enforcement officials, except under specified circumstances, based on constitutional provisions of illegal search and seizure and right to non-self incrimination) So they haven't broken the law in the US but they do have a PR mess that will, like everything, pass.

      As for other countries, it's possible that Google did not know they had violated the law until they examined the data themselves. In countries where British Common law is still strong (*not* the US, which has eroded it seriously, after 200 years), intent is relevant. In other words: ignorance is the only excuse (which makes sense. it's the only excuse that makes any real sense)

      The data isn't in legal limbo. I'm pretty sure that at this point, Google has a legal obligation to hold onto it, until all cases are settled. There are at least 3 in the US, alone. They are also under legal obligation to not let anyone else see it, until such a time as a court order changes that (eg: court orders data to be made available to expert "witnesses".)

      This isn't a legal limbo. This is simple data held for evidence, as cases make their slow way through assorted legal systems. Happens all the time.

       

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        TtfnJohn (profile), May 28th, 2010 @ 6:33am

        Re: Re:

        The point Mike is making is that Google, the possibly offended regulators and everyone else is stuck in a circular argument with no way out.

        This has nothing to do with English common law but it does have everything to do with how privacy laws, no matter how well intended, were written. (Most continental European systems are based on the Code Napoleon which is another large can of worms.)

        This is like entering an otherwise well designed traffic circle after entering you discover that you can't get out.

        Read the article again. The data is stuck in legal limbo. Google can't delete it because it may (not does) violate privacy laws in some jurisdictions, regulators can't see the data because the very same privacy laws they're trying to enforce prevent them from doing so, there are potential lawsuits out there (or real ones) that prevent deletion of the data which no one, including the lawyers, can see which may or may not violate privacy laws in some jurisdictions that no once can get a ruling on because those self same privacy laws prevent anyone from seeing the data including judges and juries.

        One enormous circular argument. Or, if you like, legal limbo.

        Or the Law of Unintended Consequences which is inviolate.

         

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      Almost Anonymous (profile), May 28th, 2010 @ 9:57am

      Re:

      This is a good point, minus the snide "on Techdirt". I feel pretty strongly that it would be almost impossible for the data to have been collected AND saved completely by accident. I just don't buy it. On the flipside, everything they collected was publicly available already by anyone with the tools to do so. So, I don't think they did anything illegal, just stupid.

      Also, I think they outed themselves because they had the sense to know it was only a matter of time before someone else did it, and the backlash would have been much worse in that case.

       

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    Mario, May 27th, 2010 @ 4:27pm

    Catch 22

    It's almost Catch 22-like... which makes the whole situation beautiful and surreal beyond belief:)).

     

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    Undisclosed Wimp, May 27th, 2010 @ 4:36pm

    What a mess...it would be funny if Google had done this on purpose just to cause a big mess.

    That would be SOME April fool's joke (in May even).

     

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    Brad, May 27th, 2010 @ 5:06pm

    Crash

    Woops the Servers Crashed!!
    Crap a virus hit our servers deleting everything!!

    :)

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 27th, 2010 @ 5:21pm

    It's a stalemate.

    Why can't Google simply hide the data from the public without deleting it and if anyone really needs it Google can decide what to do from there.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 27th, 2010 @ 5:35pm

    people get up in arms over publicly broadcast info, sheesh

     

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    Clark Cox (profile), May 27th, 2010 @ 6:51pm

    It was collected from unsecured wireless networks. These people were broadcasting this data in the clear.

    This is no different than if I yelled something at the google street-view car as it went by, and the driver remembered what it was that I yelled.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 27th, 2010 @ 7:07pm

    So... people are stupid and left wifi shit unlocked and now google is to blame?

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 27th, 2010 @ 10:53pm

    Google need to keep that data just in case someone who try to sue them exaggerate the nature of data being collected.

    As long as the data can show that the data can be of little use even when someone intentionally want to abuse it, it can be used to defend from claims that it is collected to be used to do bad thing.

    Deleting it before the legals declared it's safe to do so would be interpreted by "those who want to sue" as destroying evidence.

    ******
    That said, even if Google has to keep those data, they ought to handle them carefully. If somehow the data leaks (no matter how useless these data are), Google can indeed has serious trouble.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 28th, 2010 @ 12:12am

    its all about googles moto "don't be evil" they get second chances

     

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    georgied, May 28th, 2010 @ 12:15am

    Just let the data expire...

    Oops, can't show you. It was automatically deleted in-line with our privacy and data retention program.

     

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    Anonymous Cowherd, May 28th, 2010 @ 2:33am

    @Anonymous Coward #2: 'Cause they told us about it and took steps to ensure that they dealt with the situation correctly, rather than just covering up and hoping no-one else found out.

    Name another example of that kind of thing? No, me neither.

    Name another example of the exact opposite? Yeah, I know, I didn't know where to start either.

     

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    I. B. Firm, May 28th, 2010 @ 1:48pm

    Re:

    Ok, so....I've seen this about fourty eleven places on the web and I strikes me as obvious, but, well.....I'm an old analog guy so.....here's my take:
    1. Gvmt Cop wants to do what Google did but can't leagally.
    2. Google does it, and Gvmt Cop finds out "Wow"!
    3. Gvmt Cop askes Google for the open axs points
    4. Google ignores.
    5. Gvmt Cop askes Gvmy Politician to force Google to keep data Flip a coint on the reason.
    6. Lots a bickering blah blah blah stuff
    7. Tons of articles, but not one mentions an available actual list of open axs points(like its a national secret).
    7. Meanwhile Gvmt Cop gets fingers on data
    8. Gvmt Cop now has pristene layout of open axs points.

    I could go on, but shouldn't have to...

     

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    Darryl, May 29th, 2010 @ 4:54am

    Posts deleted ?

    Just noticing my posts dissapearing from here, do I make too good a point for you to contest ?

     

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      Mike Masnick (profile), May 31st, 2010 @ 11:13pm

      Re: Posts deleted ?

      Just noticing my posts dissapearing from here, do I make too good a point for you to contest ?


      We have not deleted any of your posts. Perhaps you posted it on a different thread?

      I can assure you that we have not deleted any of your posts. I even looked through the spam filtered comments and none of your got caught either.

       

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    Darryl, May 29th, 2010 @ 10:18pm

    My deleted post said

    What I said in my deleted post is simply this, (I dont know why it would be deleted !!).

    1. It is not possible to 'accendently' log and record open WiFi points. It take a certain degree of skill, preporation, premeditation, planning.

    It's not like tripping over a crack in the sidewalk and falling over, that is an accident.

    and,
    2. It's clear that far more than "no one" knew about it, and it was not until too many people found out about it, that someone said this was not right.

    3. Officials, are not bound by the same privacy laws as 'normal' groups or individuals. So ofcourse the officials would be able to view the file and make a determination as to their content.

    There is no 'catch 22' here, and there were no 'accidents' it was planed and executed, it was premeditated, and it was not until they were 'found out' that they were forced to take action.

    How many things dont we find out about, that they do of a similar nature, that we might not like or agree with if we were to know.

    So why these clear, and fair arguments warranted Mike to delete it I do not know, was it because it is easier to delete than debate ?

     

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      Tek'a R (profile), May 30th, 2010 @ 10:35pm

      Re: My deleted post said

      "1. It is not possible to 'accendently' log and record open WiFi points. It take a certain degree of skill, preporation, premeditation, planning."

      I dont think anyone is claiming that. In fact, the system was being used expressly to find open, unencrypted wireless access points, such as a coffee bar that offers free internet, for example. This data could be an important addition to many of the free services google offers.

      the 'accedent'(sp) was the logging of fragments of the data being transferred. This was data being transferred on totally open wireless points, the electronic equivalent of putting up a billboard or shouting out a window.

      So it is indeed possible that, while driving down the street at a normal speed, the street car might have logged a fragment of your data as it cycled through the 13 wireless channels every second.

      In other words, they might have caught a single letter of your billboard on the public street. Don't you think that an evil premeditated plan would be a little more effectively 'planed'?

      "3. Officials, are not bound by the same privacy laws as 'normal' groups or individuals. So ofcourse the officials would be able to view the file and make a determination as to their content."

      this is a very scary viewpoint.
      a government can do anything simply because they want to?

       

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    Darryl, May 31st, 2010 @ 1:24am

    It's how Governments are !

    "3. Officials, are not bound by the same privacy laws as 'normal' groups or individuals. So ofcourse the officials would be able to view the file and make a determination as to their content."

    "this is a very scary viewpoint.
    a government can do anything simply because they want to?"

    Dont they ?

    It's just a fact of like, or if you like an observation, all Governments apply the "Do what we say, not what we do" rule.

    Some to a far large level than others, but they all partake in it.
    As a communications engineer in the military (a Government military/police force), I was able to read or view all information that came past my equipment, I had to read it to check it, these could be been Top Secret military orders, or very very private personal letters or messages. My job was to read them without ever telling or talking about what I seen. They even paid me more to keep quite.

    But it's just the way it is, 'Authorities' need to be able to view anything if necessary to determine what it is.

    There is also a huge difference between posting All open access points, such as cafe's and so on, but to 'randomly' 'wardrive' and just collect everything you find, regardless of the intent of the open port, if it open but its for private use, it is no better than driving around the streets and collecting a list of all homes that leave their doors unlocked at night.

    If the police pulled someone over and found a list of house addresses of houses that were easy to break into, the police would (rightly) assume the "INTENT" of that list was to enable easy access to those homes.

    Sure, a list of ligimate free points is a good idea, but a blanket list of everything you find as "free" shows the intent of actually using that data. (otherwise why collect it).

    So for whatever intension Google had, good or bad, that information in the wrong hands would be a very powerfull tool for illegal activity, just as a list of low security homes in the wrong hands would be very damaging.

    May be it's that there is allready enough snooping by 'authorities' that having Google taking on that role, as an "intelligence gathering" orginisation, (ultimely for financial gain). Is a bit much for people to deal with.

    So the next time a police man asks you about something, just tell them for you're own privacy you cannot say anything, and on the same grounds they are not allowed to investigate you, or anyone because they cannot be privvy to sensitive information, as I said it just does not work that way.

    Governments make the rules, but they do not apply the same laws to themselves, some things just have to be accepted, and im glad 'that authorities" are able to look over the sholder of those seeking more wealth and making sure they are playing nice.

     

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      John Hebert (profile), Jun 1st, 2010 @ 3:19am

      Re: It's how Governments are !

      I haven't commented on here in a long time, but post begged me to respond.

      While I sincerely doubt your claims about what you did and what information you were privvy to in your military service, the simple fact is as a soldier your *RIGHTS* are significantly more restricted (just look at the UCMJ for example).

      The reality is the collection of what homes have unsecured networks is perfectly legal. Google just did what I, or you, or anyone else who had the desire could do, but on a larger scale. It's the same as if I drove down the street with a laptop and a paper map (remember those?) and marked where I saw a unsecured network was. The issue at hand is about the chunks of data they accidentally collected while indexing unsecured wifi.

      The "authorities" (I include the " " not as a sign for disrespect to authority, but I believe we have differing opinions as to what constitutes an authority.) Absolutely have to follow the same laws we do. I will grant you there are situations where they are allowed to view more than you or I have LEGAL access too, there are checks and balances in place to prevent precisely what you seem to be advocating.

      And you are absolutely wrong, have you ever heard of the 5th amendment? Miranda rights? either of those ring a bell? I can ABSOLUTELY tell an officer I will not discuss anything with him without an attorney (who will usually advice you to shut the hell up), and that he CANNOT access my private information at a whim. If there is probable cause for him to have a need to see my private information (IE: What I have saved on my computer) a judge will issue a warrant. Very different from what you say they can do.

      And I may be mistaken, but I believe there is precedent in place that an open wifi network is public and any data transmitted is NOT private. My interpretation of that is that going on a "wardrive" while perhaps unethical, is perfectly legal.

      And while it would look REALLY bad and lead to the police keeping a close eye on you, having a list on your person or in your vehicle of which houses on the block leave their doors unlocked is also perfectly legal. With a few exceptions, intent without action is perfectly legal. So obviously deleting the data would be a PR nightmare and *might* constitute destroying evidence (as it has not been ok'd by whatever authority has jurisdiction), hanging onto it and not using it would be (IMHO) perfectly legal. Now I'm not advocating that it's a good idea, because as long as it exists there's the opportunity for it to be leaked, but there you have it.

       

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