Outrage continues to grow over Google “WiSpy” effort

Outrage continues to rise  over Google’s “WiSpy” efforts  that saw its Street View cars snoop on private WiFi networks as they roamed the streets of 30 countries over the last three years.  Europeans contemplated criminal charges; U.S. lawmakers asked the Federal Trade Commission what it’s doing and a class action suit was filed in Oregon.

German officials, who prompted the admission from the Internet giant that network “payload data” was being gathered in what Google called a “mistake,”  were reported to be contemplating criminal charges.

“We are absolutely at an early stage,” Wilhelm Möllers, a spokesman for the Hamburg prosecutor’s office, told the New York Times. “This isn’t something that will be wrapped up in two or three weeks. We have to analyze whether there is reason to file criminal charges.”

In the United States, Rep. Ed Markey and Rep. Joe Barton wrote FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz asking if the Commission is investigating the scandal.  Their letter followed Consumer Watchdog’s request to the FTC for a probe sent on on Monday.

In Federal District Court in Oregon a class action suit was filed against Google on behalf of Vicki Van Valin and Neil Mertz seeking damages for invasion of privacy. “Users had an expectation of privacy with respect to the payload data collected and decrypted/decoded by Google.  Because the GSV packet sniffing data collection was done in secret, users could not, and did not give their consent to Google’s activities,” the complaint said.

The Congressmen asked about the FTC’s understanding of the data Google collected and who has access to it.

They also wanted to know if Google’s data collection practices with respect to WiFi violated the public’s reasonable expectation of privacy and if Google collected consumers’ passwords.

“Do Google’s actions form the basis of an unfair or deceptive act or practice that constitutes harm to consumers? Please explain your response,” they wrote.

Finally they asked, “Are Google’s actions illegal under Federal law? If these allegations warrant Commission action, does the Commission believe it currently has authority to take necessary action?”

Despite Google’s efforts to downplay the WiSpy debacle, it’s clear Google’s overreach is widely recognized and its serious intrusion into privacy well understood. As investigations proceed around the gl0be, it’s imperative that Google not delete the ill-gotten data.

It must be examined to get to the bottom of what happened and the extent of the Internet giant’s abuses.  Moreover, it is likely to be evidence in both criminal and civil proceedings.

Google should understand its legal obligation, but  just to be sure, it would behoove the FTC to send a friendly reminder to the Googleplex immediately.

Published by John M. Simpson

John M. Simpson is a leading voice on technological privacy and stem cell research issues. His investigations this year of Google’s online privacy practices and book publishing agreements triggered intense media scrutiny and federal interest in the online giant’s business practices. His critique of patents on human embryonic stem cells has been key to expanding the ability of American scientists to conduct stem cell research. He has ensured that California’s taxpayer-funded stem cell research will lead to broadly accessible and affordable medicine and not just government-subsidized profiteering. Prior to joining Consumer Watchdog in 2005, he was executive editor of Tribune Media Services International, a syndication company. Before that, he was deputy editor of USA Today and editor of its international edition. Simpson taught journalism a Dublin City University in Ireland, and consulted for The Irish Times and The Gleaner in Jamaica. He served as president of the World Editors Forum. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Harpur College of SUNY Binghamton and was a Gannett Fellow at the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii. He has an M.A. in Communication Management from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

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