Hey, You With the Open Wi-Fi: You're an Idiot

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Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, so Google did their audit and posted a mea culpa on their blog saying they hadn't done anything with the data, that they were very sorry, that they'd erase what they'd found, and that they wouldn't do it again.

Google then went into serious damage control mode and their blog continued, "The engineering team at Google works hard to earn your trust - and we are acutely aware that we failed badly here. We are profoundly sorry for this error and are determined to learn all the lessons we can from our mistake." And they added, "to make up for it, we'll come and wash your car." OK, they didn't say that, but they were that close to making the offer …

According to the Washington Post, Alan Eustace, a senior Google vice president of engineering and research went even further and said, "We want to delete this data as soon as possible, and I would like to apologize again for the fact that we collected it in the first place … We are mortified by what happened, but confident that these changes to our processes and structure will significantly improve our internal privacy and security practices for the benefit of all our users."

I've got to resort to text-speak again: OMG! Come on! Mortified? The Googlemobiles didn't run anyone over. They didn't steal anyone's dog. They didn't break into people's houses and raid the liquor cabinet.

Now, kudos to Google for "manning up" on this issue, though I'm not sure that the ridiculously submissive mea culpa combined with almost falling on their swords posture is sensible. By being so sorry, they have validated the underlying stupidity that every one, well, every one but me, seems to be overlooking: The data came from open systems! Systems that people had failed to protect. The data Google mistakenly captured was visible in the public domain. It was unencrypted data!

Having an open, unencrypted Wi-Fi service is like standing on Main Street (or, if you're in Shitterton, standing on West Street) and reading your mail out loud. It's not like leaving your doors and windows unlocked, it's like leaving them open with a big neon sign next to your house reading "Come on in and check out my stuff."

So now everyone, not just the European and Canadian politicians, but also outfits like the Consumer Watchdog advocacy group here are jumping on the bandwagon. John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog's director, is quoted in the Washington Post saying, "Maybe some Google executives are beginning to get it: privacy matters. The reality, though, is that the company's entire culture needs to change."

This is the worst kind of coat-tailing on an issue. Statements like "the company's entire culture needs to change" are so dramatic and overblown given the realities of the issue that Chicken Little would have to stand back and say, "Whoa! Hold on there, big fella!"

Even so, Simpson is right about one thing: Privacy matters. So people, if you want privacy, it's time to get real. Don't read your correspondence out loud in public, make sure you lock your doors, perhaps close your blinds, think about growing a hedge or building a fence, and don't leave your Wi-Fi service open and unencrypted. Unless your privacy doesn't matter to you, leaving any of these unsecured just makes you look like an idiot.

Gibbs' Wi-Fi is locked down in Ventura, Calif. Tell him what you've sniffed at backspin@gibbs.com.

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This story, "Hey, You With the Open Wi-Fi: You're an Idiot" was originally published by Network World.

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