Updates to this story
Google has blamed its Wi-Fi snooping on a single engineer working on the Street View project, according to a report from the Financial Times.
All Google employees are allowed to use 20 percent of their job time to work on their own projects, an employment model designed to increase productivity and creativity. An unnamed Google engineer may have used this time to work on "rogue Street View code" which allowed the Googlemobiles to sniff out unprotected Wi-Fi networks.
Despite this, Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, will not remove the free programming time its employees have. “It would be a terrible thing to put a chilling effect on creativity,” he said. This is true, of course, as the same kind of skill that went into the malicious code could be employed for very positive projects, which, if they show potential, Google would put big bucks behind. It would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater to cut an otherwise successful work policy.
That said, Google could be accused of resorting to the classic situation of scapegoating someone lower on the chain in order to avoid sacking any of its top boys. While having time for personal projects is a good idea, leaving them entirely unmonitored is not so good. If they are monitored the blame goes to higher ranks, which never settles well with the guys on top.
Google came under a lot of fire for downloading data packets from people's Wi-Fi networks, to the extent of facing the wrath of several governments and privacy agencies, as well as lawsuits by individual people.
Schmidt seemed open about the failings of Google during this debacle. “We screwed up,” he said. “Let’s be very clear about that. If you are honest about your mistakes it is the best defence for it not happening again.”