FTC Closes Google Privacy Inquiry

Wed, Oct 27, 2010 at 4:46 pm

    Saying they are satisfied with privacy reforms Google announced last week, U.S. regulators have closed their inquiry into Google’s collection of data from unsecured private Wi-Fi networks through its Street View cars, a decision that was blasted Wednesday by online privacy advocates.

    Even as privacy regulators in Italy and other countries continue to scrutinize a privacy breach that dates back to 2007, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission notified Google Wednesday that it is closing its inquiry. In addition to Google’s recent naming of a director of privacy and starting core privacy training for its employees, Google has promised that it will never use any of the 600 gigabytes of data — roughly equivalent to 300 million printed pages — that Google says it inadvertently collected from unsecured Wi-Fi networks in homes and businesses.

    “Google has made assurances to the FTC that the company has not used and will not use any of the payload data in any Google product or service, now or in the future,” David C. Vladeck, director of the FTC’s office of consumer protection, said in a letter to Google. “This assurance is critical to mitigate the potential harm to consumers from the collection of payload data. Because of these commitments, we are ending our inquiry into this matter at this time.”

    In May, Google acknowledged that for the previous four years, its Street View cars, which take street-level photographs for Google Maps and that also map the location of Wi-Fi networks for smartphone location services, had been reaching into unsecured Wi-Fi networks in more than 30 countries. Google said it didn’t realize it was collecting the so-called “payload data” until it responded to a request from German privacy authorities to check its records.

    Google co-founder Sergey Brin and other executives apologized for the breach, and Wednesday, Google said it was happy federal regulators had acknowledged the privacy steps the company had taken. “As we’ve said before and as we’ve assured the FTC, we did not want and have never used the payload data in any of our products or services,” the company said in a statement.

    Several prominent privacy agencies, however, said the government was wrong to end its inquiry, particularly with regulators in several European countries going so far as to investigate Google for possible criminal violations in connection to the Wi-Fi breach.

    “Why the Obama FTC gave Google a free pass in this regard is beyond me. They should have continued the investigation to see if this incident is connected to a larger pattern on data collection,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, noting that President Obama attended a fundraiser at the Palo Alto home of Google executive Marissa Mayer last week.

    “Our fear is that Google gets special treatment. The President is raising money from top Google officials,” Chester said. “Google is a Democratic darling in many ways. Google needs to be investigated, and not given a free pass.”

    John Simpson, of the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, said the FTC should have followed the lead of Canadian privacy officials, who last week issued a report showing that Street View cars in Canada had collected and stored entire e-mails, passwords and website addresses from homes and businesses.

    “They had a meaningful investigation and had a report out there that gave Canadians some sense of the extent of Google’s activities,” Simpson said. “We don’t have anything like that in the United States. I think the FTC owed us that.”

    Contact Mike Swift at 408-271-3648 or mswift@mercurynews.com . Follow him at Twitter.com/swiftstories

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