FCC Mulls Whether Google Street View Violated Law

The Federal Communications Commission confirmed to eWEEK that it is looking into whether Google's Street View WiFi data collection broke U.S. communications laws.

The Federal Communications Commission is mulling whether Google broke the law when its Street View cars captured users' e-mail and passwords in more than 30 countries.

Google revealed in May that cars that patrol the earth to take images for the Street View Google Maps feature had collected 600 gigabytes of user data from unencrypted wireless networks.

However, the company admitted Oct. 23 that, while it originally claimed the data collected comprised only fragments, whole e-mails, passwords and URLs were, in fact, collected.

This made it easier for the FCC, which normally does not disclose information about investigations, to cop to its scrutiny of Google, the agency told eWEEK Nov. 10.

"In light of their [Google's] public disclosure, we can now confirm that the Enforcement Bureau is looking into whether these actions violate the Communications Act," said Michele Ellison, Enforcement Bureau Chief of the FCC. "As the agency charged with overseeing the public airwaves, we are committed to ensuring that the consumers affected by this breach of privacy receive a full and fair accounting."

The Wall Street Journal said the FCC opened an investigation into Street View after fielding a complaint from the Electronic Privacy Information Center asking it to investigate whether Google violated federal law that prevents electronic eavesdropping.

Still, the FCC's investigation is interesting considering that the Federal Trade Commission closed its investigation of the so-called "WiSpy" incident without fining the company.

The agency was satisfied that Google had installed a privacy director and ordered intensive data privacy and compliance training.

Canada and the U.K. also ceased their investigations without penalizing Google.

The absolutions came after the search company spent the last several months apologizing and making nice with privacy authorities.

Asked about the FCC inquiry, a Google spokesperson apologized for the umpteenth time about the WiSpy gaffe, adding that it was a mistake.

"As we assured the FTC, which has closed its inquiry, we did not want and have never used the payload data in any of our products and services. We want to delete the data as soon as possible and will continue to work with the authorities to determine the best way forward, as well as to answer their further questions and concerns."