Google, the Internet giant that made $3.4 billion on revenues of $10.65 billion during the first three months of 2012, was fined $25,000 by federal regulators for intentionally impeding an investigation into the companys collecting of personal data from WiFi while conducting its Street View project.
In a 25-page finding issued April 13, officials with the Federal Communications Commission found that Google deliberately impeded and delayed the FCCs investigation by refusing to provide information and documents requested as part of the investigation. In addition, because an unnamed Google engineer who created the software that collected the WiFi data declined to testify at a depositioninvoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incriminationas he was subpoenaed to, the FCC said it didnt have the necessary information to decide whether Google had violated any laws.
From 2007 through 2010, Googles vehicles traveled through dozens of countries collecting data as part of its Street View project, which gives users of Google Maps and Google Earth the ability to see street-level images of locations. As part of that project, the cars also collected WiFi data to gain information that Google could use to develop location-based services.
However, at the same time, the software was collecting what the FCC called payload datasensitive and private consumer and business information such as Internet messages, emails, texts, passwords and Internet use history. Google officials in early 2010 initially denied that such information was collected, then said that some samples of data had been inadvertently collected. It wasnt until October 2010 that executives admitted that such information had been collected in more than 30 countries over the three years, and included whole emails, passwords and Web browsing information.
Google officials said the collecting of the sensitive data was inadvertent, that it never used the collected information and that the information had been deleted.
It was after this that the FCCs Enforcement Bureau began investigating whether Google had violated any commission rules. Around the same time, the Federal Trade Commission, which began its own investigation in the summer of 2010, decided in October 2010 not to take any action. Some other countriesincluding Canada, France and the Netherlandshave ruled that Googles data collection violated their privacy laws, and state attorney generals in dozens of U.S. states are still conducting their own investigations.
FCC officials in their filing said that over nine months, Google executives continuously failed to supply the information and documentsincluding internal emailsthat were requested, or the identities of many of the Google employees involved in the data-collection work, resulting in the $25,000 fine.
In a statement, Google officials said they disagreed with the FCCs characterization of their cooperation.
"As the FCC notes in their report, we provided all the materials the regulators felt they needed to conclude their investigation, and we were not found to have violated any laws," the Google officials said.
They promised to file a response with the commission.
Some consumer advocacy groups railed against the $25,000 and the FCCs decision to issue a heavily redacted finding. John Simpson, director of the Privacy Project at the Consumer Watchdog group, said he was pleased the FCC derided Google for its blatantly obstructionist violations, but $25,000 is chump change to an Internet giant like Google. By willfully violating the Commissions orders, Google has managed to continue to hide the truth about Wi-Spy. Google wants everyone elses information to be accessible, but in a demonstration of remarkable hypocrisy, stonewalls and keeps everything about itself secret.
Simpson also said, Googles claim that its intrusive behavior was by mistake stretches all credulity. In fact, Google has demonstrated a history of pushing the envelope and then apologizing when its overreach is discovered. Willfully obstructing a federal investigation shows Google has something to hide. Given its recent record of privacy abuses, there is absolutely no reason to trust anything the Internet giant claims about its data-collection policies.