US Regulators Scold Google for Taking E-mails

Wed, Oct 27, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    NEW YORK (AP) — The Federal Trade Commission is scolding Google Inc. without punishing the Internet search leader for collecting e-mails, passwords and other personal information transmitted over unsecured wireless networks.

    In a two-page letter released Wednesday, the regulatory agency expressed its displeasure with Google for allowing potentially sensitive information to be scooped up for several years before management realized it. It took an inquiry from German regulators earlier this year for Google to realize it had been inadvertently pulling and storing information from wireless networks as its cars took photos of neighborhoods around the world for its “Street View” mapping service.

    The activity outraged some privacy watchdogs who believed Google’s activity may have violated laws against unauthorized wiretapping. It also triggered the attention of legal authorities in several of the more than 30 countries where Google’s cars were snooping through Wi-Fi networks.

    Although Google apologized for intruding, it has steadfastly insisted that it didn’t break any laws because it got the data from Wi-Fi systems that should have been protected with passwords. That lack of security left the networks open to anyone passing by with the right equipment. Google’s Street View cars no longer are equipped to detect Wi-Fi networks.

    The FTC said it closed its investigation without any further action against Google because it’s satisfied with a series of measures that the company announced last week in an effort to improve its internal privacy controls.

    Consumer Watchdog, a group that has been among the most strident critics of Google’s so-called “Wi-Spy” incident, called FTC’s resolution “premature and wrong.” It also suggested that Google’s lobbyists may have swayed the outcome of the inquiry. The company has spent $3.9 million on lobbying activities so far this year and has met with the FTC on variety of topics, according to company disclosures.

    “At a minimum, the public deserved a full report about Google’s abuses from the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection,” said John Simpson, who oversees a Consumer Watchdog project monitoring Google.

    In a statement, Google said it welcomed the FTC’s findings.

    The company’s collection of Wi-Fi information remains under investigation in the U.S. by a coalition of state attorneys general. Italy on Wednesday became the latest of several countries outside the U.S. to open investigations into whether Google’s surveillance of Wi-Fi systems broke their laws.

    Google says it gathered about 600 gigabytes of data — enough to fill about six floors of an academic library — and wants to delete all the information as soon it’s cleared in all the affected countries. So far, it has only purged the information it picked up in Ireland, Denmark, Austria and Hong Kong.

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