FCC Reveals New Twist In Google ‘Street View’ Case

Tue, May 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    Unredacted FCC findings appear to contradict Google’s claim that it inadvertently intercepted individuals’ internet communications in the process of gathering data from Wi-Fi networks across the globe for the firm’s “Street View” project.

    The Federal Communications Commission’s investigation into data-collection missteps connected with Google Inc.’s “Street View” mapping project is getting renewed attention following the release of a mostly unredacted version of the agency’s findings in the case.

    The recently released unredacted findings appear to contradict Google’s claim that it inadvertently intercepted “payload data,” or the content of individuals’ internet communications, in the process of gathering information from Wi-Fi networks across the globe for the Street View project.

    The document shows that, during preparations for the Street View effort, a Google engineer shared emails with colleagues at the firm revealing that he designed software for the project that was capable of collecting payload data.

    Senate Hearing Urged.

    The new revelations have prompted Consumer Watchdog, a Washington-based advocacy group, to call for a hearing by the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, which is chaired by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.).

    “The FCC order shows that substantial questions about the Wi-Spy scandal remain unanswered and that is largely because the engineer responsible for writing the code that gathered payload data invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify,” John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s privacy project director, said in a letter to Franken, dated April 30.

    Simpson urged the subcommittee to offer immunity to the engineer in question in exchange for his testimony. In addition, he said that Google Chief Executive Officer Larry Page should be required to explain the corporate culture that allowed the scandal to happen in the first place.

    Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

    FCC Imposed $25,000 Fine.

    On April 13, the FCC quietly published a heavily redacted “apparent notice of liability” [DA 12-592] that detailed findings of the agency’s investigation into the Google Street View debacle.

    According to the FCC’s notice, Google “deliberately impeded and delayed” the agency’s Street View investigation, launched in November 2010, by failing to provide requested documents, resulting in a $25,000 fine. The company’s alleged infractions included delaying its production of emails and other communications.

    Ultimately, however, the agency said it could find no evidence that Google broke the law when it intercepted payload data as part of the Street View effort.

    “There is no clear precedent for applying Section 705(a) of the Communications Act to Wi-Fi communications at issue here,” the FCC said in the notice. “Morever, because Engineer Doe permissibly asserted his constitutional right not to testify, significant factual questions bearing on the application of Section 705(a) to the Street View project cannot be answered on the record of this investigation.”

    The Federal Trade Commission dropped an investigation into the matter in October 2010, citing privacy commitments from Google.

    The mostly unredacted FCC notice is available at http://www.scribd.com/fullscreen/91652398.

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