Cry baby Conroy must apologise to Google

Cry baby Conroy must apologise to Google

Summary: Stephen Conroy must immediately stop his vicious public attacks on Google and apologise for his clear lack of understanding of the technical details of the recent potential privacy breach in the collection of Wi-Fi data by the search giant's Street View cars.


commentary Stephen Conroy must immediately stop his vicious public attacks on Google and apologise for his clear lack of understanding of the technical details of the recent potential privacy breach in the collection of Wi-Fi data by the search giant's Street View cars.

Conroy's grimace

What's in Conroy's grill?(Credit: Liam Tung/ZDNet Australia)

That's the conclusion that I drew this morning after reading the transcript (PDF) of our noble communications minister's statements on the matter in the Senate Estimates Committee yesterday. In the committee, Conroy made a number of statements that have no obvious basis in fact.

For example, he stated that it was possible that Google's collection of Wi-Fi data constituted "the largest privacy breach in history across Western democracies".

I hardly think so.

Conroy, as the internet has widely chronicled, privacy breaches are incredibly rampant in our information-rich society. It's not hard to find examples in the past few years where massive government databases have been left on unencrypted USB keys, and job-seeker databases have been hacked into with information on hundreds of thousands of people stolen.

There was even a case where over 250,000 people who had requested a free sample of a personal lubricant had their details exposed on the public internet.

Need I point out that the Australian Taxation Office itself has admitted to losing data about taxpayers? And government auditors (the most recent example being Western Australia) regularly find appalling security and privacy practices within the public sector.

In this context, Google's admission that it had accidentally automatically been picking up some Wi-Fi data across unencrypted networks must surely rank as quite minor — especially since it doesn't appear as if Google knows precisely what it picked up, and is currently attempting to delete the data in the safest way possible.

As Google itself has stated, the data collected was not even that significant. The fact that its Street View cars are constantly in motion means that they would typically only have captured "fragments" of payload data from Wi-Fi networks.

Conroy's claim of a massive privacy breach just doesn't stack up when there is no obvious injured party yet from Google capturing what could just be useless fragments of information.

Then there was Conroy's statement that Google deliberately collected the Wi-Fi data, which he repeated several times under questioning from Liberal Senator Mary Jo Fisher.

Well, no. As Google has stated: "Quite simply it was a mistake."

An engineer wrote a piece of code that was mistakenly included alongside other code used in Google's Street View cars.

I fail to understand what basis Conroy has for not believing Google's incredibly open and honest statement here — in public — apologising for its mistakes. There is simply no evidence that Google was deliberately planning to collect payload data through its Street View cars.

Until someone finds a smoking gun — such as an email from Google CEO Eric Schmidt commanding Google to spy on people's Wi-Fi networks — we must presume Google innocent until proven guilty, and take the company at its word. To do anything else is a travesty of justice.

But perhaps the most disturbing thing about Conroy's testimony is the lengths to which he went to make links between Google's various recent activities.

"Google takes the view that they can do anything they want ... People should not mistake the approach being taken by Google on a range of issues around the world," he said, going on to extensively quoting the search giant's CEO Eric Schmidt in an apparent effort to concoct some massive conspiracy on behalf of the search giant.

From Google Buzz, to Street View, to Wi-Fi SSID collection, to the internet filter ... Conroy seems to believe that Google is evil, and he's actively investigating the company's operations internationally, using public statements by its CEO Schmidt to build castles in the air about it.

The incredibly absurd nature of his testimony in the Senate Estimates Committee yesterday (I encourage you to read the transcript) is evident by the reactions throughout from Scott Ludlam, in which the Greens senator's incredulity in the face of Conroy's nonsense statements is written as plain as day.

"This is starting to sound really personal. Go ahead," said Ludlam, and later: "Are you going to quote them on your filter, because I presume that is what this is all about?"

Later, after a lengthy diatribe on the fact that Google states on its website that users can trust it when it comes to privacy, Ludlam sarcastically remarked: "Terrible!"

The other disturbing thing about this situation is that it displays to great effect the amazing immaturity with which Conroy wields his ministerial powers.

If I was communications minister and I had a problem with a company whose operations fell in my portfolio, I would contact that company's Australian managing director — or even its global CEO — and request a private chat to work through some of the difficulties.

Doing so emphasises your power as a minister and allows you to build close relationships with other powerful people that will be useful in a thousand different ways.

Instead, Conroy has chosen to make his complaint about Google public, drawing on his overt powers of parliamentary privilege rather than using his influence to manipulate the situation.

Putting pressure on Google in the senate, to be honest, is likely to make the search giant dig in harder and defend its position. If Conroy really wanted to achieve substantive change in the way Google operates, he would likely achieve much greater traction by dealing with his issues behind closed doors.

The "cry baby" approach he is currently pursuing is unlikely to deliver any substantial outcomes — apart from convincing the rest of the industry that he is a dangerous and unstable commodity. And it reinforces the impression that his current Google complaints stem from the search giant's opposition to his pet internet filter project.

In the content of what he appears to believe is a massive conspiracy from Google to steal his data, I am only left with one question for Stephen Conroy this morning.

Does this mean, Conroy, that on your own PC you use Microsoft's Bing?

Topics: Google, Government AU, Privacy, Security

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  • Surely we deserve better politicians than this adult Minister who throws temper tantrums like a child? The guy has already done damage to Australia's reputation by trying to introduce a Chinese-style Internet filter to our western democracy. Why have someone so ignorant of the facts in charge of communications?

    Australia continues to move toward a nanny state. We've got customs officials rummaging through granny's lingerie photos at airports. The Australia of today is much more fascist than the one I grew up in. Stop voting fascists like Conroy into office, otherwise you deserve what you get!
    Fudge Factor
  • Senator FISHER— ... That is five minutes of estimates we will never get back.


    I also liked how Conroy also goes on to complain that Google's policy for removing content from YouTube is "secret" and therefore it must be OK for the government's filter to be "secret" also: ignoring the fact that Google is a private company and removing content from their own privately-owned servers...

    Even Ludlam saw the absurdity of that argument.
    Dean Harding
  • Right at the end of the transcript, when they're talking about the NBN, Conroy mentions "RSPs" and Ludlam says "ISPs", then Conroy says "We call them RSPs now."

    I've never heard the term "RSP" and a quick google only seems to turn up the "Revolutionary Socialist Party"... weird.
    Dean Harding
  • Hi Dean,

    Yes. That term came pretty much started being used for the National Broadband Network. I've forgotten now why the distinction was made, but retail service provider does say that they are the middle man between the NBN wholesale services and the end retail customer. I had a bit of a laugh when I got to that part of the transcript. Conroy had an amusing tone of voice in my head when he said "actually we call them RSPs now". (although that probably wasn't exactly the phrase).

    Suzanne Tindal, News Editor
  • You are clearly a misguided Google "fanboy", you need to understand Google were stealing personal information from private networks in the same way as a common thief rummages through dustbins, they must be called up on it. Other firms having failed to stop a direct hack, or have accidentally left confidential information in public places is in no way comparable to information theft, if anything Google should be compared in these cases to the hacker or the person finding and keeping the lost pen disk.

    This kind of ranting Google fanboy article is very dangerous, they are not infallible and they do need to be held to account for such invasions of privacy. At least the Germans are looking into the matter seriously, most countries I am sure will follow suit, the UK has also called for the information to be deleted.

    Surely even a total idiot knows that code to collect and store public wi-fi information doesn't get written and installed on every street view car and maintained and run, by accident sorry, come on, wakey wakey? If like they say it was written by "someone else" and included by mistake perhaps they should consider reading the code they run..
  • And use tor + scroogle, scrape that google crap off
  • It's not surprising. He's not fit to be minister for anything.
    iiNet's CEO criticised Labor's filter policy. Conroy retaliated by calling iiNet's AFACT court case defence like something out of Yes Minister (nice call Conroy. How did AFACT go?)

    Retaliation against Sydney Morning Herald's tech editor for articles critical of the filter was met with a blacklisting from DBCDE media communications.

    He had a big spray against Google in the parliament previously well before the wifi issue in retaliation for Google refusing to support Labor's idiotic filter policy.

    I'm not voting Labor again until Rudd and Conroy are gone. I like the NBN, but fear it's doomed with this incompetent at the helm. I've tuned out from any NBN announcements now.
  • "Google takes the view that they can do anything they want ... People should not mistake the approach being taken by Google on a range of issues around the world,"

    Funny, you could replace the world 'Google' with 'Conroy' it would fit perfectly...
    Scott W-ef9ad
  • This is a pretty lame opinion piece. Example:
    " It's not hard to find examples in the past few years where massive government databases have been left on unencrypted USB keys, and job-seeker databases have been hacked into with information on hundreds of thousands of people stolen."

    What has this comment to do with Google, and it's alleged transgressions of the Privacy Act? That's like Ivan Milat complaining for being jailed when Pol Pot murdered so many millions. The two aren't related, and while you might think it's a cogent argument, it lacks logic. The sky is dark, therefore the sun didn't come up.

    I'm not knocking your right to criticise Conroy who, unlike you, is an elected representative and who is responsible for his utterances in a far more complex way than an on-line commentator like you or a pissante letter-writer like me. And he is a bit of a tool.

    Finally, and I am in (unpopular) support of Conroy himself on this, but Government is ultimately motivated toward the public good (even if they get waylaid) while there is nothing whatsoever altruistic about an American corporation like Google. If you guys think Google is some big, benevolent organisation, you are naive in the extreme, but that is how it appears to objective readers of this site.

    This site is tending more and more towards a mutual wankfest, and ZDNet's objective and critical approach is a bit lacking, frankly. Look at the Neil Mc above - basing his entire voting intentions on whether Conroy is a Minister or not. Not very mature, but pretty typical.

    A little more perspective and balance perhaps, guys? (Picking up shield and ready for the arrows!)
  • is there anyone out there who doesn't think that the minister for communication is a total idiot......?
  • This isn't about being a Google "fanboy" it's about a company that unwittingly did the wrong thing, discovered the issue, publicly admitted the fault, and is taking every reasonable step to rectify the problem.

    Meanwhile, Conroy persists with his censorship program. He's knowing doing the wrong thing, won't admit he's wrong, won't disclose how it'll work, and refuses to change his approach.

    Which is better, noting you're taxes are paying for one mistake but not the other?
    Scott W-ef9ad
  • Hi Steven WSJohnson,

    Where you wrote:
    "Look at the Neil Mc above - basing his entire voting intentions on whether Conroy is a Minister or not. Not very mature, but pretty typical. "

    Please go back and have another read. No where did I say I was changing my vote because Conroy was a minister. I was a Labor voter (every federal election for 22 years). I said I wasn't voting Labor again untill Conroy AND Rudd are gone. I have many reasons for this (& the opinion polls indicate that I'm not unique).

    Conroy's performance in the Communications portfolio isn't helping to keep me onside. Labor's dogged determination to stick with dumb policy in relation to communications isn't helping. Being a tech news site though, I won't dot point all of the reason's Labor has lost my vote. It's going to take more than some TV ads on health and some sound bites on "working families" to get me back.
  • to StevenWSJohnson

    i think you've got it wrong. they weren't saying what google did was ok because of the massive government databases have been left on unencrypted USB keys. they were saying that what google did was not, as the minister described it, the largest privacy breach in history across Western democracies, that there have been far worse.
  • For those mental deficient, or simply unwilling to research before making sweeping statement.

    Google have stated that they will be deleting the data. They cannot at the moment because doing so would be destruction of evidence in event of civil or criminal proceedings. They have however placed it in a secure offline location.

    Google was not collecting private information. They were collecting public information from Open WIFI connections connecting to each one for an average of 1/5th of a second.

    The code that connected to the WIFI and grabbed data was not created by Google. It was legally taken from an Open Source project and implemented. Google thought it was merely grabbing the SSID and MAC.

    Google checked into what was being collected when asked by the German government. They found they had made a serious mistake, admitted it then proceeded to try and find a way to fix the problem they had caused.
  • @neil mc. Fair enough
    @smallbear. I think you missed my point. The guys is a politician, so exaggeration comes with the territory. My point was that the logical link between the government screwing up and Google screwing is non-existent and silly way to make a point. My point (not well put, admittedly) was also that Government's privacy snafus (in Australia's case) is down to incomptence, but it is at least well-intentioned regardless of the party running the place. That can't be applied to Google, who did it deliberately. Remember Tony Abbott saying a few months ago that sometimes it's best to just say or do something, and apologise later? In Google's case, that is massive danger and I believe it potentially threatens our soveriegnty as a nation that US multinational corporation is building this sort of information base.
  • "That can't be applied to Google, who did it deliberately."

    Proof of STFU as they say.

    You cannot say that the "deliberately" did anything were is your proof ??

    The answer will come out and i can almost guarantee that you will wrong.

    If you were a programmer you would also know that the application in question would have spanned thousands or even millions of line of code. Which can and does get forgotten about. Mod this replace that.. woohhoopps irrelevant function that is not needed for "normal" operation of the program but happens to be doing something.. like collecting FRAGMENTS of data.

    Also you accuse smallbear of missing your point... I think you missed or just completely disregarded his/her point.

    You attack the article and author for comparing thing that are not relevant... Sorry but as smallbear said the author was criticizing Conroy's comment that Google committed "the largest privacy breach in history across Western democracies". which is a VERY relevant comparison to draw.
  • "We call them RSPs now."

    How clever that must make you feel Mr Conroy. Dream up your own acronym and then put down others for using globally recognised, industry standard terms. All you've done is further highlight what a waste of tax payer dollars you are.
    Scott W-ef9ad
  • What a load of garbage!
    Google's actions are akin to recording fragments of the broadcasts of any available radio station while driving around.
    How could anyone describe unencrypted data being broadcast out to the street on an unsecured network as a privacy breach?