Group Claims Contradiction In Google Official’s Testimony

Thu, Nov 11, 2010 at 1:59 pm

    One of Google’s most persistent critics called on the House Energy and Commerce Committee Thursday to hold a hearing into the firm’s Wi-Fi data collection controversy, citing a discrepancy in a Google official’s testimony on the matter during a Senate hearing in June.

    Consumer Watchdog wrote Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and ranking member Joe Barton, R-Texas, to once again request a hearing into the Wi-Fi controversy. Google revealed in May that cars that collected images for the company’s Street View service “mistakenly” also gathered payload data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks.

    While the FTC recently announced it was dropping its probe of the matter, the FCC confirmed Wednesday that it is investigating the issue. Several state attorneys general and data protection authorities in other countries also are investigating the matter.

    Consumer Watchdog urged Waxman and Barton to call Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Google Director of Privacy Engineering Alma Whitten to testify. The group cited a “discrepancy” in testimony Whitten gave about the controversy during a Senate Commerce hearing in June. The group claims that while Whitten testified at the time that Google did not breach any private data from the Wi-Fi networks, information revealed before the hearing from an investigation by the French National Commission on Computing and Liberty revealed the opposite.

    “Google has demonstrated a troubling pattern of changing its story in public statements as it has offered explanations of why it gathered private data from wireless networks. Moreover, it is clear that Whitten, who mentioned Google’s Wi-Spying in congressional testimony this summer, gave a written statement that contradicted the facts,” Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court and John Simpson, director of the group’s Inside Google project, wrote.

    “Whitten’s actions must be examined closely because in its effort to revamp its image and portray itself as a company concerned about consumers’ privacy, Google has promoted her to director of privacy for engineering and product management,” they added.

    Barton, who is campaigning to become chairman of Energy and Commerce when the GOP takes control of the House in January, said last week that the Wi-Fi controversy was “very troubling” and voiced skepticism about Google’s claims that it collected the Wi-Fi data by mistake. Barton also indicated that he would examine the issue if he is chairman of the committee in the 112th Congress.

    Another senior member of the committee, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., also has voiced concern about the controversy. In a statement Wednesday, he applauded the FCC’s decision to investigate the issue.

    “The Federal Communications Commission is rightly investigating whether Google’s Street View cars steamrolled privacy laws in pursuit of mapping information,” Markey said. “I commend the commission for taking action – the potential for this technology to be used for drive-by snooping into people’s personal lives is not something to be taken lightly. … I will continue to actively monitor developments in this important area.”

    Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Consumer Watchdog’s charges. But Whitten said in the same testimony from the June Senate hearing that “these samples of payload data have never been used in any Google product or service; nor do we intend to use them.”

    She added, “I can attest that it was not consistent with the value we place on the responsible handling of personal data. Google is taking the review of this matter very seriously and we will report back with the changes we’ll make to prevent such a thing from happening in the future.”

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