Consumer Group Demands Hearing On Google ‘Wi-Spy’

Thu, Nov 11, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    Ardent Google critic Consumer Watchdog has called on Congress to hold hearings on a major privacy breach by the Internet search engine giant, and insists that CEO Eric Schmidt should come to Washington to testify.

    The group says Congress should get involved even though the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is already investigating.

    That probe is important, but Congress is “the best venue to get a full explanation,” the group said Thursday in a letter to House lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over Google.

    Google admitted last month that it collected and stored private user data, including passwords and e-mails, from Wi-Fi networks. Critics have termed the incident Google’s “Wi-Spy” breach.

    In the letter, Consumer Watchdog argued Google has changed its story about the breach.

    Google initially said it may have only collected data fragments. But last month, the company said the breach went further than it thought, and that it had grabbed entire e-mails and passwords.

    This revelation means there were inaccuracies in the testimony of a Google privacy officer at a July Senate hearing, according to Consumer Watchdog. The privacy officer had said that personal data had not been breached.

    Alma Whitten, the Google official in question, has since been promoted to oversee a wider swath of privacy concerns.

    “It is imperative, given Whitten’s new role that is so highly touted by the company, that she be called to explain under oath the discrepancy between her testimony and the known facts,” the letter said.

    The letter also calls on Congress to question Schmidt in a hearing.

    “As chief executive he is ultimately responsible for the Internet giant’s approach to privacy. He should have to explain what he means when he says Google’s policy is to go ‘right up to the creepy line,'” the letter says, referring to lighthearted remarks from the chief executive last month.

    Google has apologized for the breach, suggesting that the problem is under control.

    “As soon as we realized what had happened, we stopped collecting all WiFi data from our Street View cars and immediately informed the authorities,” a spokesperson said in response to the FCC probe.

    “As we assured the FTC, which has closed its inquiry, we did not want and have never used the payload data in any of our products and services. We want to delete the data as soon as possible and will continue to work with the authorities to determine the best way forward, as well as to answer their further questions and concerns,” the spokesperson said.

    Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has said that if he becomes the chairman of the panel in the next Congress, he is interested in probing the incident. He is competing for that position against other Republican lawmakers.

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