FTC Forgives Google Street View WiFi Privacy Gaffe

Satisfied with Google's new privacy policies, the Federal Trade Commission forgave Google for its Street View WiFi-sniffing incident, concluding its inquiry.

The Federal Trade Commission has concluded its inquiry into Google's Street View WiFi-sniffing incident, citing the search engine's improved privacy practices and assurances that it has no plans to use the data it collected.

Google in May admitted its Street View cars, which rove streets all over the world collecting images, accidentally collected more than 600 gigabytes of e-mail, browser and password data from citizens beginning in 2007.

This included information snatched from unsecured WiFi networks in more than 30 countries, including the U.S., Germany, U.K., Ireland and France. Upset privacy authorities for these countries opened inquiries into the matter.

The FTC filed its notice of inquiry to Google after the disclosure and was joined by a separate investigation into the matter by U.S. attorneys general for more than 30 states.

While Google initially claimed the data it collected contained only fragments of user data, the company said Oct. 22 that Street View had, in truth, grabbed whole e-mail messages, passwords, and URLs.

Google has already deleted this data for some countries, and is working to do so with others. To further resolve the issue, the company installed a privacy director and significantly revised its internal privacy and compliance procedures.

This was enough to satisfy the FTC. David Vladeck, director of the agency's bureau of consumer protection, wrote in an Oct. 27 letter to Google that the FTC has ceased its investigation into the matter because Google has taken efforts to bolster its privacy practices.

Vladeck noted that, while Google's previous privacy policies proved inadequate, Google's new policy and promise to delete inadvertently collected data make a difference.

"Further, Google has made assurances to the FTC that the company has not used and will not use any of the payload data collected in any Google product or service, now or in the future," Vladeck wrote. "This assurance is critical to mitigate the potential harm to consumers from the collection of payload data."

Google was pleased with the news, but admitted it has no bearing on the multi-state investigation by attorneys general. A Google spokesperson told eWEEK:

"We welcome the news that the FTC has closed its inquiry and recognized the steps we have taken to improve our internal controls. As we've said before and as we've assured the FTC, we did not want and have never used the payload data in any of our products or services."

Consumer Watchdog was not pleased with the news, suggesting that Google's coziness with government agencies on Capitol Hill led to the FTC's latest absolution.

"Once again, Google, with its myriad of government connections, gets a free pass," said John M. Simpson, director of the Inside Google Project for Consumer Watchdog.

Simpson, who praised Google's new privacy measures in a statement Oct. 22, now called the new policies "window dressing," and chided the FTC for abandoning its inquiry.