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Google Street View's Wandering WiFi Eye

Google Street View's Wandering WiFi Eye

Google Street View has already taken its share of heat in Europe over privacy issues, but now it seems Street View cars weren't just looking at houses, but also sniffing unprotected WiFi networks. Google says it was a mistake, but European officials are officially steamed. Meanwhile, Hotmail gets reheated, Apple blasts the iPhone leak, and "The Hurt Locker" producers target BitTorrent users with lawsuits.

By Paul Hartsock
05/22/10 5:00 AM PT

To create its Street View service, Google sends fleets of cars to drive around cities all over the world and take pictures with the 360-degree cameras they have strapped to their roofs. The result is many things to many people: a convenient source of information, a depressing reminder that your home is ugly, an enduring memento of that time you ducked into an alley and thought nobody was looking, etc.

Even though Google's cars stay on public roads, some also consider Street View a huge invasion of privacy. Before last week, those people might have thought they were being violated only photographically, but it turns out that devices inside some of those Google vehicles were spying on WiFi networks as well.

According to the New York Times, Google invited data protection expert Johannes Caspar to its German headquarters to check out the vehicles it uses for Street View. The service was already under the glare of European privacy advocates for its habit of staring at people's houses, but Caspar pulled on a thread that eventually revealed something more troubling. Devices inside those Street View cars were actually sniffing unprotected WiFi networks in the neighborhoods they drove through and saving some of the information -- what sites were visited, what was done there, etc. So far, Google has admitted that it happened in Germany and Ireland, but it was a mistake, they didn't mean to do it, and whatever data was collected is being erased.

But Google's already made something of a target of itself in Europe over privacy issues, and this development just threw another bucket of gasoline on the fire. Officials in Germany, Czech Republic, Italy and the UK are all probing the matter independently, and EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding gave Google her own personal stink-eye.

Stateside, privacy groups have asked the FTC whether it plans to do anything about this, so there may eventually be some action in the U.S., but there's clearly a difference between the way American officials and European officials are reacting to this. Carl Howe at the Yankee Group told us, "The Europeans think we're crazy for being so lax about privacy, and we see them as crazy because they get all upset over privacy issues."

But how private is an open WiFi network, anyway? That's debatable. Google didn't go busting down any password barriers -- not even weak ones. Logging into someone else's unprotected WiFi without permission is a low and intrusive thing to do, but consider that these are wireless signals being broadcast into public space with no attempt made to block unauthorized users. Just because nobody should snoop doesn't mean nobody will.

Encrypting your WiFi network is a lot like shutting your blinds. It's up to you -- but if you don't do it, you're relying on people to not be rude, voyeuristic and generally awful, which is a losing bet, so don't be too shocked if you find out you've been gawked at. And once Google gawks at you, it's not easy to be ungawked.


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Hotmail Re-Heated

Microsoft's Hotmail has about as many users as the Earth has Americans, but recently the company noticed that the service's design and feature set was beginning to look pretty stale. Some of its features actually hadn't been touched in years, and in that time, rival services like Yahoo and Gmail have been continuously revamping their message centers, and their user volumes have grown accordingly, especially Google's.

So this summer, Hotmailers will get all sorts of new toys. There'll be a new sorting feature and a window for sending status updates directly from the email app. You'll get new ways to clean up the inbox, including ways to automatically delete marketing items that aren't spam but are still stuff you don't want to read.

Then there's this thing called "Active View." If you get an email with a bunch of photos in it, you can automatically view them as a slideshow instead of downloading them via the browser. Silverlight required.

Hotmail will also have access to Skydrive, where you'll be able to store documents. Skydrive will also let you send massive photo sets -- up to 200 -- by uploading them to Skydrive and then sending a link.

The Hurt Lawsuits

For all its Oscar wins and glowing reviews from critics, the film "The Hurt Locker" didn't really take in all that much money, and for movie producers, it doesn't matter how many thumbs Roger Ebert has or where he's sticking them -- success is determined by revenue, not little statues or stars on newsprint.

That's not to say nobody saw it. In fact, millions of people saw "The Hurt Locker" for free, via file-sharing systems like BitTorrent. Now Voltage Pictures is teaming up with the U.S. Copyright Group in order to sue thousands -- or even tens of thousands -- of people who illegally shared digital copies of that film, plus almost a dozen others.

Presumably, Voltage has made a long list of IP addresses it's observed sharing its films. It will have to subpoena various ISPs to find out whose addresses those are, which the ISPs might or might not be willing to provide. Then a bunch of letters will get sent, and Voltage's lawyers will sit back and wait for the accused to come begging for a settlement. With this many potential defendants, though, we might actually see a few opt to go to trial.

If this tactic sounds familiar, that's because it's similar to what the RIAA used to do a few years ago to people suspected of illegally trading music files. But those kinds of lawsuit-carpet-bombing tactics were pretty damaging in terms of PR because they'd sometimes nail people like struggling single parents or the elderly. So the RIAA scaled way back on suing individuals.

But Voltage is doing this without the involvement of the big movie trade association, the MPAA. Also, according to Randy M. Friedberg at White and Williams, these Voltage lawsuits appear to be about actual damages, whereas the RIAA's suits were all about deterrence. If that's the case -- if Voltage really is going after the money it lost from a guy illegally downloading a movie rather than a punitive sum meant to strike fear in the hearts of other file-sharers -- then what's a fair amount for that? Twenty-five, maybe 30 bucks?

Didn't See It Coming?

Apple's iPhone release schedule has failed miserably at obeying Greene and Elffers' 17th Law of Power, which is to keep others suspended in terror by cultivating an air of unpredictability. So far, the only air the iPhone's calendar has cultivated is one of entitlement -- it's summertime; where's my new toy? No, Apple has never promised the birth of a new iPhone each summer at Solstice, but in a few short years it's built a foundation of expectation second only to that of Santa Claus.

So that's why I'm kind of perplexed by one of the things an Apple lawyer said to the police in regard to that lost iPhone that Gizmodo reported on last month. Attorney George Riley told a San Mateo detective involved in the case that one of the reasons Apple's been damaged by the leak of that iPhone was that some people may have delayed buying an iPhone 3GS if they found out a newer one was on its way.

Yes, such people exist, and sometimes they're quite intelligent. They just don't read tech sites and blogs all day, everyday. But even if many buyers aren't aware of the iPhone's past release schedule and what it suggests for the future, who in the world thinks that Apple wouldn't have something new in the pipeline for eventual release? That's just the way it works in consumer culture: You get at best a few months worth of honeymooning with a slick new thingy, then a newer model comes along that makes the one you're stuck with look like crap, and you save your money for the next new thingy. Repeat until death.

In fact, that leak may have given Apple a bit of additional build-up buzz it wouldn't otherwise have received. Apple's just not used to buzz that it didn't brew in-house.

On the other hand, the leak did give competitors a sneak-preview of what's inside. And even if this caused current iPhone sales to dip just 1 percent, that could amount to something like $80 million, which is way more than I've got. Still, if you presume that these people -- the ones who heard about the new iPhone and decided to wait -- will buy an iPhone eventually, it's not exactly a lost sale; it's a matter of having that sale now vs. a few months from now. Just figure in interest -- which may also be quite a lot.

If we must go into deeper tea-leaf-reading, I suppose this might also suggests that the iPhone that was lost and reported on by Gizmodo lacks some vital features that the real fourth-gen iPhone will have. If that's so, there might exist someone out there who read about it in Gizmodo, got prematurely disappointed, and decided to move to the forest and give up all high technology forevermore. Or he just figured, to hell with waiting, I'm going to be buy a different phone today. Same result: lost sale for Apple.

Learning What Works, and What Doesn't

Google had some pretty daring ideas for the Nexus One, the Android smartphone nearest and dearest to its heart. Sure, the phone itself is made by HTC, and every Android phone is a Google phone to a certain extent. But Nexus One is special to Google -- Google launched the phone personally at its headquarters, the company gave it its "superphone" nickname, the Nexus bears the Google brand, and most importantly, Google wanted to see if it could give the status quo a little jolt and stick it to the carriers a little by going with a completely unorthodox sales model: online sales only.

Of course, buyers would still need to choose from the same old lineup of wireless carriers for service, but they wouldn't have to buy the phone from one of those carriers' stores. They'd also maybe kind of have to pay through the nose -- no subsidies, unless they went with a T-Mobile contract.

But the Nexus one was a bit of a mulligan as far as sales went. It wasn't a bad phone per se, it's just that the sales model never caught on. People generally want to touch and handle their phones before buying -- this is something that's going to live in your pocket almost every waking hour of the next two or three years, so a little hands-on time is important. Also, Google's customers are typically ad buyers, not phone buyers, so when it came to Nexus One customer and technical support, things got off to a very rough start. Then there was that superphone moniker. That one didn't quite stick. Other new phones with comparable specs hit the market soon after, and the "super" wore off pretty quickly.

So Google's making a clean break from this sales plan and calling it like it is. Said VP Andy Rubin, "While the global adoption of the Android platform has exceeded our expectations, the web store has not. It's remained a niche channel for early adopters, but it's clear that many customers like a hands-on experience before buying a phone, and they also want a wide range of service plans to chose from."

What's next for Nexus One? A more orthodox approach. Google says it's going to work with both retail and operator partners to get going with some traditional distribution lines. There might be something for it at Best Buy, Wal-Mart or Radio Shack, according to ABI's Mike Morgan. He told us, "Since the Nexus One came out, the Droid Incredible came out, and Sprint has its EVDO 4G device coming out. Suddenly, the Nexus is not that hot of a handset."

So -- failed experiment? Or somewhat of a success in that it demonstrated what doesn't work? Who knows, maybe you'll see a Nexus One sitting next to a bunch of prepaid phones at Radio Shack in a month ... or perhaps you'll see a Nexus Two in a fancy-schmancy Verizon display case next November.


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