CM Jim Graham says Google commits “big brother-like” invasion of privacy

Photo by PoPville flickr user Wayan Vota

This is so wild at first I thought it was a hoax. From a CM Jim Graham press release:

Today, Council Member Jim Graham released the following statement on Google’s revelation that it has been collecting data from open wi-fi networks as part of its “Street Views” mapping system.

“This is a shocking revelation that may have exposed countless Washingtonians to a “big brother-like” invasion of privacy,” Council Member Graham said.

“In this digital age, it is essential that government take a strong stand to protect its citizens from the unwanted erosion of privacy by large corporations. Should we discover that laws have been violated, we must act swiftly to enforce those laws to the fullest extent.”

Google has been sending cars with cameras down streets for the past four years capturing images for its street view maps. Late Friday, May 14, Google announced they had collected data from unprotected wi-fi networks in homes that their street-view-camera cars drove by. This means Google could have intercepted any activity on those wi-fi networks, including emails sent, documents/photos downloaded, instant messages exchanged, websites visited, etc.

Graham has asked Attorney General Peter Nickles and Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Director Linda Argo to investigate any anti-trust violations of the D.C. Code (28 D.C. Code 3903(a)(1)) relating to the city’s privacy laws and whether this constitutes a pattern or practice of abuse. He has also asked Attorney General Nickles whether the communications privacy issue is something that the District could pursue, or whether it is primarily a federal matter.

60 Comment

  • Really? With all the problems our city has, Jim Graham is focusing his attention and the AG’s attention on this? Is this is a new revelation for him? Does he realize the Google views are all taken from public property and that other jurisdictions have been unsuccessful in challenging its existence of the street views.

    JG is such a sap.

    This is a good way for him to get some headlines, though, isn’t it?

    • I had the exact same thought. Isn’t there something more pressing that requires Jim Graham’s attention? Every day, I get more and more tired of him and his campaigns against molehills when there are mountains of real problems facing this city. Even if you’re going to start small, this is not a step toward fixing anything that’s broken around here.

      • +1.

        Time to stick him in the love bug, wind him up by his bow tie, and fly him back to non-profit land.

        • Agree. This is SO BEYOND many of the day-to-day concerns of his constituents…He is a bit out of touch with what really matters to us.

          • +1

            It’s like, “I better hurry and make some sweeping positive political headway with a grandiose statement before I don’t get reelected…”


    • Point taken about where JG focuses his attention, but I believe the issue here is not the pictures that Google is taking but the information that the picture-car is harvesting from open WiFi networks as it drives around.

      • Who cares. So does comcast. At least google throws the information out, whereas comcast sells it to advertisers.

        Hey JG, go work on the lead in the water issue. I distinctly remember your “outrage” on DCTV about 2 years ago. 2 years and you haven’t done squat and more kids have astronomically high levels of lead in their blood. Mostly because you don’t have the brains to know when you’re being lied to. –Witness: your chief of staff, your time on the metro board, WASA.

        This guy’s a prescription for death.

      • I don’t understand why there is an expectation of privacy when you choose to broadcast something. Google blurs faces which, technically, I don’t think they have any legal requirement to do. Further I doubt they are planning to make anything they gather here available at any kind of granular level, but even if they did, what law would they be breaking?

        I see a non-problem. You broadcast something into the public. People can listen if they want. There are simple measures to prevent that if you don’t want people listening. Take them, or don’t have conversations on your front porch with a speakerphone.

        • Are you sure they aren’t required to blur faces? Wouldn’t it require consent to otherwise publish their images? Sure regular people ignore this kind of stuff all the time, but corporations are more likely to actually get sued…

          • saf

            No – public space, no assumption of privacy, so no need to blur faces.

          • i think germany/france have strict laws on this so it may be something they do universally with their images.

          • If you google a certain address in DC, I am in the image with a blurred face. They didn’t ask my consent. It without a doubt 100% me, and it’s WEIRD.

  • you think google is the only one who knows how to run a packet sniffer? people who leave their wifi unprotected are asking to have their personal information stolen. (the same goes for the people stealing their unprotected wifi!)

    • Whether people are “asking for it” or not, using an open wifi connection without permission is illegal in many jurisdictions. I know we all do it when we can’t connect legally for whatever reason, but it’s still illegal and extraordinarily sketchy for Google to be gathering Wifi data both systematically and secretly.

      To those calling this “making a mountain out of a molehill” I’d simply ask where the mountain is? Graham very reasonably asked for a preliminary investigation into this issue, and sent off an email. Given that German courts are actually issuing subpoena’s to see what Google gathered, Graham’s response is very modest. It’s probably a waste of resources to actually pursue an investigation and legal action to its conclusion, but a little pressure from multiple directions will probably be enough for Google to at least disclose what it was up to with this kind of bizarre illegal act… and a more transparent Google is good for everyone.

  • in this day and age, if you don’t protect your personal wifi, you deserve whatever happens. i mean, come on now.

    and using said wifi isn’t “stealing” any more than having that wifi enter your laptop without your permission is “trespassing”.

  • I can’t wait to vote out Jim Graham whenever the next Ward election is. Hope it’s this November.

    • Yes, it’s in November. Hey PoP, how about you start covering the elections? I think we need to know who is running. Perhaps you can even host a debate!?

      • Can you do a sit down with some of the new candidates like Clark Ray? It would be good to get to know some of the guys who are challenging incumbents and what their views are.

    • The primary election in which Graham is running is September 14th (November is the general election). His opponents (that I know of) are Jeff Smith and Bryan Weaver.

  • Uh, if you have an open wi-fi network, isn’t that your own damn fault? If I leave my window open and dance naked in front if it, is it an invasion of privacy if people watch?

    Anyway, the whole idea that you’re exposing yourself because of an open wi-fi network is wrong from the outset.

    Obviously Jim Graham is not aware of this, but once your email leaves your so called “open” wi-fi network, it enters this thing called The Internet, where anyone on earth who is positioned between you and your email’s destination can also intercept it.

    The real risk from open wi-fi networks is not someone parking their car outside your house and reading your email – it’s that if your home network is not secured, they could easily gain access to it and anything on your hard disk. But unless you are someone who’s being specifically targeted this is very rarely going to be a problem.

    It’s too bad there are so many misconceptions because it would be a real boon to society if everyone left their wi-fi networks open, and we didn’t all have to pay Comcast $60 a month for a resource that we all barely use to its capacity.

  • People with limited knowledge of technology should have somebody with knowledge of the intertubes fact check before they go spouting off. Could Google have been nefariously been snooping in on people’s traffic? Sure, but it’s highly unlikely especially with a quick pass by the Google-mobile. They are probably out of range before they could grab too much info. You really need to be on the lookout for real criminals war-driving then siting in front of your apartment because you DIDN’T LOCK DOWN YOUR F*CKING WIFI.

    In all likelihood the data they are gathering is much more benign. There is technology out there that is using known wifi hotspots as a triangulation and mapping tool (gee, why would Google MAPS be interested in that?!). Or Google could be gathering data on open wifi networks for other research. In case you haven’t noticed they are kind of in to this data gathering thing.

    • ah

      Actually, in Germany google was gathering payload data, not just network IDs for mapping/location info.

  • Google is being sued in Washington and Oregon over the same issue, and being investigated by German prosecutors for the same as well. Maybe Graham thought this would be an easy win for a lawyer buddy or some such.

    Sure wish DYRS would do something to get investigated. Or perhaps the dormant crime lab. Or the billion other things wrong in this city.

  • Jim Graham has got to be one of the least intelligent politicians I’ve encountered.

  • I think most people protect their personal WiFi (at least of the 10 or so accounts I can see at my house, all are protected), but what about open WiFi such as that provided at schools, libraries, restaurants, etc. Many of these are protected (free but password-protected) but many are just open. Here’s a map of the free WiFi locations provided by DC:

    While you can say all should be protected, I can see why it would be offensive that a company like Google is actively phishing like this.

    • How about this: have a message when you sign on to an open network that explains that it’s an open network, which I guess is not obvious to some people? Use at your own risk.

      When you talk on your phone at Tryst, do you have an expectation that others will not listen to you?

  • He’s pissed of because the sex club on Corcoran that was shut down last year shows his beetle driving by when pulled up in google street view.

    I’m sure it’s just a funny coincidence, but it does give me a laugh.

    This was discussed here and in City Paper.

  • Ditto to all the comments above. If you have an unsecured WiFi network, then the possibility of a Google vehicle driving by to collect whatever data they’re interested in is the least of your problems.

    Also, why would Jim Graham or the AG devote any time, attention or resources to this minor issue, when the city is awash in ordinary crime and thuggery. Seems like pure Graham-standing to me!

  • The real question is, why the hell is google scanning unprotected wifi networks in the first place? I agree that you should have your networked secured, but why would google be looking for network traffic like that?

    • I’m guessing it was an attempt to map “free wifi hotspots” or something, which frankly would be a pretty cool layer to add on Google Maps.

      This assumes that people have their *personal* wireless routers secured, and that they wont show up as open when scanned. The unfortunate reality is that lots of idiots do NOT use wireless encryption, and as a result, had their hotspots mapped by Google’s traveling map-mobile.

      How does that saying go?… no good deed goes unpunished..?

  • Why not? I can think of lots of interesting analyses that could be made with this information…. probably nobody else has good data on the saturation of wifi networks by area, percentage secured/unsecured, and so on.

    Data is good…

  • Having an unsecured wifi connection is like leaving your information out on your front yard.

    • ah

      It’s more like leaving your bathroom shades open–why does someone across the alley have to sit and stare looking at you?

  • Idiots… this has nothing to do with photos. Clearly all but one of you read the article entirely. It has everything to do with privacy and the theif of that info.

    Just because someone can break into my house and I happen forget to lock the door doesn’t mean they should get a pass or be allowed to do it or that I desire it.

    You see we are not the “Google” customers so they don’t care what someone else does with our info.

    I don’t get you people. I have decide our city is filled with mostly sad little whiners.

    Regardless of the post, 9 out of 10 are negative personal attacks… this time against, “JM” others against children, minorities, and so on.

    I won’t even mention the whimps who talk nothing but blah, blah, blah, yet they remain ANON. Cowards for sure.

    I for one can’t wait to vote CM Jim Graham back in again. Least we forget, he has always tried to do good for this city… remember a little place called the Whitman Walker Clinic.

    • Why do you think broadcasting information into public space is the equivalent of leaving your door unlocked?

      How is this any different than having a conversation on your phone where it can be overheard in a public space?

      • I suppose one could argue that a phone call can be passively overheard while data mining requires actively ‘listening’ with a device other than one’s ears.

        Still, I think it’s foolish to leave your network unlocked, despite the fact that it doesn’t give anybody the right to take that info any more than they have the right to lift something off your porch.

      • ah

        Because the equipment necessary to get the information is a bit more difficult to set up than your ears.

        • I thought the problem was google gathering this data en masse.

          The equipment necessary to do that for phone conversations would probably be much more complex, actually.

          As far as doing it individually, anyone with a computer already has the equipment.

        • nope. actually you can do it with any crappy old laptop with a wireless card. effectively, you could find what you need in the trash. this has been that easy since the days of AOL dominance.

      • Bless your heart – Its called a metaphor.

        1.a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance, as in “A mighty fortress is our god.”Compare mixed metaphor, simile (def. 1).
        2.something used, or regarded as being used, to represent something else; emblem; symbol.

        • I think a better term would be a “false analogy” since one involves criminal trespass, which is actually protected in the first amendment to the constitution. The other does not.

    • Because people die when he’s in charge of things: Metro.

      Because he hires people who do bad things to women and take bribes: Ted, Chief of Staff.

      Because he’s Johnny on the spot in front of the camera after things go wrong, but he doesn’t do anything to PREVENT problems BEFORE they occur.

      Because he launches ridiculous trial balloons, and then denies involvement when he’s lampooned: Jumbo Slice.

      He’s the definition of a blowhard. All bark and no bite.

    • Please…talk to anyone who worked for JG when he was at the Whitman-Walker Clinic and they will tell you not only what a miserable person he is to work for (every ex council staff will tell you that too), but he also left the nonprofit with a giant deficit.

  • I don’t agree with the arguments that if you leave your wifi unprotected its fine for Google to get info. Some compare it to being naked in a room with your curtains open and a passerby getting a nice show.

    I think its more akin to leaving said curtains open and Playboy paying people to stand right outside the window and take a few photos. One is city living, the other is a corporate sponsered peeping tom.

    It may be currently legal, but its not right

  • Not to be a geek, but if you actually read DC Code 28-3903(a)(1), it doesn’t refer to either privacy or anti-trust issues.

  • They’re not doing anything with the information. They inadvertently grabbed it doing other things. They’re scrubbing the information from their databases.

    Most of us aren’t that important. The one’s that are, aren’t stupid enough to have WIFI.

    • Anybody with a SSN is important enough to snag some info from, if the snagger is criminally inclined.

      I hope we can actually trust Google to scrub their servers.

      • If they were going to do something bad with it, why would they bother telling everyone they accidentally grabbed it?

        It’s not like anyone could have busted them.

  • You can get that stuff directly from the federal government, for example. I can’t even imagine the labor that would be involved in harvesting SSNs from random wifi networks since most people don’t just include those in their emails.

    • Tis easy technically, you just collect all transmitted data and write a script to review it for strings of numbers, 9 numbers for SSN, 15-16 for credit cards, etc. Totally automated.

      • Again, I ask, who sends emails with credit card numbers and social security numbers?

        I have never done that in my entire life. It’s the whole reason SSL encryption exists. If you could just scan the wifi stream for credit card numbers posted to web sites, then the whole internet would also be able to scan for them. It’s encrypted the moment it leaves your web browser window.

    • If it’s to be believed that using an unsecured network can put everything on your HD at risk to prying eyes, then it doesn’t have to be limited strictly to information that you include in an email.

      If keeping your HD safe were as easy as just not including sensitive info in your emails, then this discussion wouldn’t be happening.

      • .. and has anyone accused google of hacking into their computers? I thought this was about scanning data transmitted on unprotected networks.

        If your network is not secure, you should probably be more worried about the 4 billion people in the world with internet access, than the handful of them who drive by your house. They both have the same access to that doorway.

      • The only thing google knows about is your pervy porn habits. THAT is the sensitive information they’re talking about.

        And like I said, Comcast already publishes that to anyone who’ll buy it.

  • do you use gmail? do you use google’s search engine – they already know everything about your habits, interests, etc anyway.

  • i’m not a huge Graham fan, but in this case, all he did was ask the AG to look into it. big deal. please, go back to freaking out over the pancake place.

    • No he didn’t. He released a press statement trying to garner attention to himself. If all he was doing was asking the AG to look into something, he could have done it with a phone call.

      “This is a shocking revelation that may have exposed countless Washingtonians to a “big brother-like” invasion of privacy,” Council Member Graham said.

      Big Brother? Where does he think he is, Kansas?

      Big Brother was the government, not a private corporation. He’s the government.

  • Why does jim care about google, he is lucky his chief of staff was not on google taking a payoff from the nigeian cabbie. Enough of Jim, he needs to stop and represent us the way he represents the metro board. Grow up Jim.

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