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Consumer View: Staying Safe from Cyber Snoops

by: Joel Gurin, Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau

June 11, 2010

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:78:height=100,width=71]]Recent news reports have focused attention on a growing concern: The ways in which wireless and WiFi networks can make consumers’ private data accessible.

In May, Google reported that its Street View cars – used to develop Google Maps – had mistakenly collected personal information sent over WiFi as they drove around, in addition to gathering less intrusive data about the WiFi networks themselves.

Now this week, a group of hackers reported that it had gotten the e-mail addresses of more than 100,000 Apple iPad owners by hacking the Web site of AT&T, Apple’s partner. The hackers also got the ID numbers the iPads use to communicate over the network. The Google and AT&T incidents are different kinds of intrusions, each worrisome in its own way, and each with a different remedy.

The iPad incident appears to be a classic security breach – the kind that could happen, and has happened, to many companies – and is exactly the kind of incident that has led the FCC to focus on cyber security. Our Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau is now addressing cyber security as a high priority. The FCC’s mission is to ensure that broadband networks are safe and secure, and we’re committed to working with all stakeholders to prevent problems like this in the future.

Google’s behavior also raises important concerns. Whether intentional or not, collecting information sent over WiFi networks clearly infringes on consumer privacy. Here, there are some immediate remedies. The Google incident is a reminder that “open” WiFi networks – those that are not encrypted – are all too vulnerable to cyber snooping. The Federal Trade Commission has a guide to wireless safety at that can help you keep your information safe over WiFi. As consumers explore the many benefits of WiFi and mobile broadband, we would all do well to keep these important safeguards in mind.

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