Consumer Group Sniffs Congresswoman’s Open Wi-Fi

Fri, Jul 9, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    We’re not sure what’s more humorous: That California Rep. Jane Harman, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, maintains two unencrypted Wi-Fi networks at her residence, or that a consumer group sniffed her unsecured traffic in a bid to convince lawmakers to hold hearings about Google.

    A representative for Consumer Watchdog — a group largely funded by legal fees, the Rose Foundation, Streisand Foundation, Tides Foundation and others — parked outside Harman’s and other lawmakers’ Washington-area residences to determine whether they had unsecured Wi-Fi networks that might have been sniffed by Google as part of the internet giant’s Street View and Google Maps program.

    The group wants the House Energy and Commerce Committee, of which Harman is also a member, to haul Google executives before it, so they can publicly explain why, for three years, Google was downloading data packets from unencrypted Wi-Fi networks in neighborhoods in dozens of countries. Google has repeatedly said it didn’t realize it was storing snippets of payload data on unsecured Wi-Fi networks, until German privacy authorities began questioning what data Google was collecting.

    Consumer Watchdog’s wardriving unintentionally highlights the murky state of wiretapping laws in the United States. According to the text of the federal wiretapping statute, it’s not considered felony wiretapping “to intercept or access an electronic communication made through an electronic communication system that is configured so that such electronic communication is readily accessible to the general public.”

    So even if had been deliberate, Google’s sniffing would arguably not have been illegal. For its part, Consumer Watchdog says it only grabbed frame data, not content, in order to enumerate the devices on Harman’s network.

    “This was a deliberate attempt to focus attention on how Google could well have gathered information on the members of Congress who are members of the very committee who we think should be holding hearings on this,” John Simpson, a consumer advocate for the group, said in a telephone interview.

    As many as 30 state attorneys general and several governments are looking into Google’s behavior. A handful of members of Congress have asked Google what happened, but no public hearing has been called in the United States.

    Google says it is cooperating with the relevant authorities, and said its actions were lawful. (.pdf)

    The District of Columbia residence of Harman appears on Google Street View, as does the residence of several other Commerce Committee members. Consumer Watchdog could not identify open Wi-Fi at those other lawmakers’ homes, but found two networks with Harman’s name on them while parked outside her house.

    “Enough serious questions have been raised about Google’s practices that their top executives should be called into account and testify about what happened,” Simpson said. “If I were Jane Harman, I would go to Google and demand to know what they have from my network. ”

    Calls to Harman’s offices in the District of Columbia and El Segundo, California, were not returned.

    Consumer Watchdog said that, between June 27 and July 6, its survey included the residences of Commerce Committee members Reps. Henry Waxman, (D-California), John Dingell (D-Michigan), Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts), Rick Boucher (D-Virginia) and Harman. Kismet, the program Google said it used when it packet-sniffed open Wi-Fi networks, was the same program the group used.

    A technician parked in front of each lawmaker’s residence for five minutes, the group said.

    Two unencrypted networks, Harmanmbr and harmantheater, according to the group, were discovered outside Harman’s residence. (.pdf)

    Street View is part of Google Maps and Google Earth, It provides panoramic pictures of streets and their surroundings across the globe.

    French regulators said data captured by Google includes e-mail passwords and content of electronic messages.

    Photos: Consumer Watchdog

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