Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Google’s “Rogue” Wi-Fi Engineer Seems to Be a Longtime “Wardriving” Developer

New York Times reporters appear to have identified the Google engineer who designed a program that had the company’s Street View cars collecting personal information from Wi-Fi networks between 2007 and 2010.

And, as it turns out, the engineer in question was the creator of one of the leading “wardriving” applications used for driving around with a laptop while looking for unsecured wireless networks.

While it sounds scary, wardriving doesn’t necessarily involve slurping up personal data, just measuring nearby Wi-Fi signal strength.

But, although Google was cleared of wrongdoing on this issue by the FCC (it was fined $25,000 for obstructing the agency’s investigation), the company’s lack of oversight over the supposed “rogue” engineer’s work didn’t make Google look very good.

Now, learning about the supposedly responsible engineer’s personal history makes it clear that he was an expert on the topic and his contribution was no random act.

The Times reporters say the engineer is a Google employee named Marius Milner. They did a good bit of reporting, including getting his name from a former state investigator and visiting Milner’s house.

Milner is the creator of Windows wardriving software NetStumbler, which was first released in 2001. He has been with Google (and now YouTube) since 2003, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Milner’s background is important because Google has downplayed this data collection incident from the start — at first denying it happened altogether, and then calling it a mistake.

Even if the Street View wardriving wasn’t found to be illegal, Google still has an ongoing issue around public trust and privacy to deal with.

Google, which didn’t confirm the Times report about Milner, had told the FCC that an unnamed engineer who wasn’t on the Street View team created the program to collect user data as a side project. Google employees admitted to the FCC that the project had sailed through an approval process and not been reviewed for privacy considerations by company lawyers.

But Milner, without admitting he is “Engineer Doe,” seemed to dispute Google’s characterization, according to Steve Lohr and David Streitfeld’s story in the Times.

“Depicting his actions as the work of a rogue ‘requires putting a lot of dots together,’ Mr. Milner said enigmatically Sunday before insisting again he had no comment. He said he was closely following the news reports on the issue.”

Now that we know Milner’s history, if you look back at the FCC report, it explains that “Engineer Doe” was specifically “tapped” by the Street View team to help with wardriving — although not to collect payload data.

“As Street View testing progressed, Google engineers decided that the Company should also use the Street View cars for “wardriving,” which is the practice of driving streets and using equipment to locate wireless LANs using Wi-Fi, such as wireless hotspots at coffee shops and home wireless networks. By collecting information about Wi-Fi networks (such as the MAC address, SSID and strength of signal received from the wireless access point) and associating it with global positioning system (GPS) information, companies can develop maps of wireless access points for use in location-based services. To design the company’s program, Google tapped engineer Doe, who was not a full-time member of the Street View project team.”

When Google released a less redacted version of the FCC report via the Los Angeles Times over the weekend, it issued a statement saying “We hope that we can now put this matter behind us.”

As more information about the project surfaces, that seems to be wishful thinking.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald