Attorneys general across the United States are responding to Consumer Watchdog’s call to investigate Google’s WiSpy debacle in which the company used its Street View vehicles to snoop on private WiFi networks for three years.
I wrote the National Association of Attorneys General on May 26 asking that our request for an investigation be passed on to the AGs. On June 2 NAAG’s executive director, James E. McPherson, responded that he appreciated my concern and would pass the message to the state AGs.
Since then AGs in at least Missouri, Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, Massachusetts and New York have demanded answers from the Internet giant. Some examples of what’s happening:
- Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal, who announced he was probing the incident, organized a conference call among 30 state AGs to discuss the situation.
- Today Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said they had sent a request to the Internet giant seeking information on the scope of the data collection.
- Michigan AG Mike Cox send a letter to Google this week asking 12 tough question’s about the company’s WiSpy practices and gave the company ten days to respond. He also told Google “to preserve for 90 days all records and other evidence related to the collection, use, and disclosure of personal information that its ‘Street View’ cars collected from wireless networks in Michigan.”
It’s not yet clear if the the states will coordinate their efforts, but the conference call is a good sign that they are moving in that direction. The importance of coordinated state action was underlined by Joseph Menn in the Financial Times:
While legal actions by individual states can force big changes at companies accused of wrongdoing, a multi-state effort has a better chance of making a substantial impact. Working together, the top legal officers of states can assign more specialists to a case and focus on the local laws with the strictest language.
In the 1990s, coordinated lawsuits between states against the big tobacco companies secured advertising reforms and about $200bn in damages.
And action continues at the federal level with probes by the Federal Trade Commission and possibly the Federal Communications Commission. The legislative branch is concerned, too.
Last week three Congressmen, Reps. Joe Barton, R-Texas, Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif. were skeptical of Google’s response to their questions about WiSpy. Barton said “this matter warrants a hearing, at minimum.”
Barton is far off the mark with his lame apology this week to BP CEO Tony Hayward, but he is spot on in the call for a Congressional hearing on WiSpy.
Internationally, this week the French data protection agency CNIL said it was examining data collected through WiSpy to decide if Google should face criminal charges or other sanctions.
Canada’s privacy commissioner is probing the collection, while police in both New Zealand and Australia said this month they would investigate. Probes are also underway in Germany, Austria, Italy and the UK.
As we said in our letter to the AGs:
Google’s claim that its intrusive behavior was by ‘mistake’ stretches all credulity. In fact, Google has demonstrated a history of pushing the envelope and then apologizing when its overreach is discovered. Given its recent record of privacy abuses, there is absolutely no reason to trust anything the Internet giant claims about its data collection policies.
I think there is a positive aspect to WiSpy, however. People clearly understand that the Internet giant was snooping and gathering private data. It’s been a wake-up call, focusing our collective attention on Google’s data gathering practices and the unprecedented massive amounts of information it stores in its global network of servers.
Consumers are realizing that Google is run by people with this mind set: More data is always better no matter how you grab it. Don’t ask permission, you can always ask forgiveness.
Now that people are beginning to understand how much data Google has sucked up and its cavalier attitude toward consumer privacy, they expect the the company be held accountable and are demanding the Internet giant behave responsibly.