FTC, European Regulators May Investigate Google's WiFi Snooping

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2010-05-18

Google's accidental collection of citizens' WiFi data in countries all over the world may be eliciting exactly the type of response the search engine fears from regulators in the United States and abroad.

That is, more scrutiny.

The Wall Street Journal said May 17 (paywall) the Federal Trade Commission will likely open an inquiry into Google's admittance of data harvesting. The Financial Times said Peter Schaar, the German commissioner for data protection, called for a "detailed probe" into the practice by Google.

Google May 14 surprised even eternally suspicious privacy advocates with its frank admission that its Street View cars collected personal information from citizens' WiFi networks in the United States, Germany, Britain, Ireland, France, Brazil and Hong Kong in China.

A feature in Google Maps, Street View cars patrol and take pictures of streets in countries all over the world to help map out local terrain for users. European countries such as Germany and Switzerland have been especially critical of this service.  

Google said in April that its Street View Cars did not collect data that people share between WiFi networks and computers, although the cars did collect WiFi network names and router addresses.

Google later learned that for the last three years it actually also grabbed some "payload data," which can include user e-mails, passwords and Web browsing activity. The company said it did not use this data and is working with the affected countries to delete this data.

Google has already deleted data it collected in Ireland with the help of a third party, the company said in an update to its initial blog post May 17.

The Journal classified the FTC's inquiry as being in an "embryonic stage" and that it will not necessarily lead to sanctions for the search engine.

John Simpson, consumer advocate for the Consumer Watchdog group, wants the FTC to document what data Google has been gathering, for how long and what the company does with it.

"Google has demonstrated a history of pushing the envelope and then apologizing when its overreach is discovered," Simpson said. "Given its recent record of privacy abuses, there is absolutely no reason to trust anything the Internet giant claims about its data collection policies."

The Street View problem, coming so soon after the privacy debacle triggered by the Google Buzz privacy service, may be all government regulators require to make the case that Google has violated consumer rights.

Regulators could argue the Street View gaffe is proof that it lacks the necessary safeguards to preserve user privacy. Regulators could then sanction Google, imposing controls over how much data the company collects and how it is used.

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