Privacy Advocates Call for New Google Probe Over Street View

Google is criticized for its lack of cooperation with the FCC's investigation, with groups calling the $25,000 fine too lenient.

Google may have escaped a Federal Communications Commission inquiry into its collection of sensitive personal data through its Street View project with a $25,000 fine, but the troubles may not be over for the Internet giant.

The FCC on April 13 fined Google for impeding its investigation into the company€™s collection of personal data between 2007 and 2010 when Google vehicles traveled through dozens of countries as part of Street View, which gives users of Google Maps and Google Earth the ability to see street-level images of locations.

The company not only collected WiFi data for its location services efforts, but also sensitive personal information from consumers and businesses€”from email messages and passwords to texts and Internet use histories. The revelation in 2010 caused a firestorm around Google, whose officials initially denied the allegations, then admitted that the data had been collected inadvertently.

The FCC kicked off an investigation, but closed it last week. The commissioners said there was no clear precedent in FCC policies covering WiFi networks, and that due to Google€™s lack of cooperation with the agency, there was not enough information available to make a ruling.

Consumer privacy groups and politicians are now pushing for a larger investigation into the matter, blasting Google for not cooperating with the FCC and questioning why the agency let off Google with such a small fine.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) sent a letter April 15 to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder calling on his office to pick up the investigation.

€œBy the agency€™s own admission, the investigation conducted was inadequate and did not address the applicability of federal wiretapping laws to Google€™s interception of emails, user names, passwords, browsing histories and other personal information,€ EPIC Executive Director Marc Rotenberg wrote. €œGiven the inadequacy of the FCC€™s investigation and the law-enforcement responsibilities of the attorney general, EPIC urges you to investigate Google€™s collection of personal WiFi data from residential networks.€

U.S. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and former chairman of the Communications, Technology and Internet Subcommittee, said he wanted Congress to continue putting pressure on Google and other Internet companies to make the protection of private information a priority.

"Google's Street View cars drove right over consumers' personal privacy while cruising city streets and neighborhoods,€ Markey said in a statement. €œConsumers saw their WiFi morph into 'Spy-Fi'. The FCC was correct to fine Google for this breach and to cite the company's recalcitrance in providing timely and comprehensive information in support of the Commission's investigation. However, I am concerned that more needs to be done to fully investigate the company's understanding of what happened when consumer data was collected without their knowledge or permission. This fine is a mere slap on the wrist for Google.€

In its 25-page finding, the FCC said Google €œdeliberately impeded and delayed€ the FCC€™s investigation. The company refused to provide much of the information and documents€”such as internal emails€”commissioners requested, or many of the names of those involved in collecting the data. The key Google engineer who created the software used to collect the WiFi data declined to testify at a deposition€”invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination€”which the FCC said left open many questions that investigators could not answer.

€œWe€™re pleased that the FCC called Google out for its blatantly obstructionist violations, but $25,000 is chump change to an Internet giant like Google,€ John Simpson, director of the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog€™s Privacy Project, said in a statement. €œBy willfully violating the Commission€™s orders, Google has managed to continue to hide the truth about Wi-Spy. Google wants everyone else€™s information to be accessible, but in a demonstration of remarkable hypocrisy, stonewalls and keeps everything about itself secret.€

Google executives disagreed with the FCC€™s characterization of their cooperation, and said in a statement that they would be filing a response.

Google and other Internet giants, such as Facebook and Apple, have come under increasing scrutiny and criticism in recent years over the amount of personal information they collect on their customers and how they use that data, including giving advertisers access to it to enable them to better target personalized ads to users. Google earlier this year changed its privacy policies, a move that raised concerns in both the United States and Europe.

Markey questioned Google€™s commitment to protecting user privacy. Taking the FCC€™s findings, €œcoupled with the company's recent changes to its privacy policy, it seems as if Google is making a U-turn in its commitment to protect consumer privacy as embodied in its settlement with the FTC."

As part of a 2011 settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over privacy questions surrounding their Buzz social network, Google executives agreed to independent privacy audits for the next 20 years.

Several European countries have fined Google over the Street View situation, and more than two-dozen state attorney general offices are still investigating.