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Better to cloak SSID? Google won’t say

WirelessWiFi users who opt for the convenience of broadcasting their SSIDs, versus cloaking their wireless networks, based on the security strategy that a privacy measure calls attention to itself, were shocked last week to learn that Google’s Street view vehicles were mapping neighborhoods, logging their open WiFi signals, including the data flowing across the networks.

Google was quick to explain and apologize, but further revelations suggest the extent of the data mining went beyond even tracking computer MAC addresses on the networks. Google appended its mea culpa / won’t-do-it-again to detail the network activity it may have recorded, and now between the lines netizens familiar with sniffing technology can surmise the privacy stalker was taking in quite a bit more.

Here is how Google explained the initial anomaly when news emerged from a German Government probe of their alarming information sweep:

In 2006 an engineer working on an experimental WiFi project wrote a piece of code that sampled all categories of publicly broadcast WiFi data. A year later, when our mobile team started a project to collect basic WiFi network data like SSID information and MAC addresses using Googles Street View cars, they included that code in their softwarealthough the project leaders did not want, and had no intention of using, payload data.

Who is to say what is “publicly broadcast data?” Users could presume it means unencrypted transmissions, but not necessarily. The real revelation was the suggestion of “payload data.”

Google had to follow up their FAQs when their customers fielded some tougher questions:

…its now clear that we have been mistakenly collecting samples of payload data from open (i.e. non-password-protected) WiFi networks, even though we never used that data in any Google products.

We’re getting over the shock of Google ads targeted at us based on where we’ve surfed, subjects about which we’ve emailed, and social network conversations. Get ready for profiling based on file and folder names on our desktop.

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