Congressional Panel Seeks WiFi Data Answers From Google

Wed, May 26, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    SAN FRANCISCO (Dow Jones) — A U.S. Congressional committee has sent a letter to Google Inc. (GOOG) seeking details on how the Internet search giant’s Street View cars accidentally collected private data from unsecured wireless networks.

    The May 26 letter from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce contains a list of 12 questions aimed at clarifying the scope of Google’s data collection and what the company has done with the personal data it gathered.

    The letter suggests that Google could face a worsening public-relations crisis after the Mountain View, Calif., company acknowledged on May 14 that vehicles it deployed to create its online mapping services had inadvertently gathered information about people’s website usage.

    “We are concerned that Google did not disclose until long after the fact that consumers’ Internet use was being recorded, analyzed and perhaps profiled. In addition, we are concerned about the completeness and accuracy of Google’s public explanations about this matter,” said the letter, signed by Reps. Joe Barton (R., Texas), Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) and Edward Markey (D., Mass.).

    “As we have said before, this was a mistake. Google did nothing illegal and we look forward to answering questions from these congressional leaders,” a Google spokesperson said in an email.

    The Internet search giant’s market clout and privacy practices had already put it under increased scrutiny from regulators and government officials in the U.S. and Europe. But pressure on Google is likely to be ratcheted up after it said it inadvertently gathered “payload data”–fragments of web pages and email messages–when its roving vehicles collected WiFi data for use in location-based products.

    “We understand that this data collection first came to light in Europe, but it now appears based on media reports that this practice was pervasive in the United States as well,” the committee members wrote.

    The committee wants Google to reveal the percentage of U.S. roads scanned as part of its Street View program and whether all vehicles documenting U.S. roads were monitoring or collecting WiFi transmissions at all times during those activities.

    The letter also asks Google to reveal how many U.S. consumers were subject to data collection, whether affected communities provided consent and how that data was used.

    The company’s admission, prompted by pressure from German regulators, sparked an outcry across Europe and in the U.S., where Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz said his agency will look into the matter.

    Meanwhile, consumer advocacy group Consumer Watchdog on Wednesday urged state attorneys general to investigate whether the company broke wiretap, privacy and unfair business practices laws.

    The group also called on state authorities to demand that Google preserve all documents relating to its data-collection activities because they could be evidence in criminal or civil cases.

    Google’s actions have already prompted a series of class actions alleging Google violated federal and state privacy laws.

    The company had previously said it was reaching out to relevant countries’ governments and privacy experts about how best to dispose of the data as quickly as possible.

    Contact the author Scott Morrison, Dow Jones Newswires, at; 415-765-6118  or  scott.morrison@dowjones.com

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