Privacy group calls for hearings on Google StreetView snooping

Senate committee should call CEO Page and 'Engineer Doe' to testify on the Street View program, Consumer Watchdog says

U.S. lawmakers should reopen an investigation into the snooping on Wi-Fi networks by Google's Street View cars because of information in a U.S. Federal Communications Commission report that suggests several people at Google knew of the spying, a privacy group said Monday.

Consumer Watchdog, a frequent Google critic, called for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee's privacy subcommittee to convene a hearing on the Wi-Fi spying after Google over the weekend released a mostly unredacted version of an FCC report on the Street View snooping, revealed in May 2010.

As Google tested its Street View service the company's engineers decided it should use the Street View cars for wardriving, or sniffing Wi-Fi networks, according to the FCC report. The information would prove useful for creating maps of Wi-Fi hotspots, the FCC report said. However, one engineer, referred to anonymously as Engineer Doe, also developed code for collecting Wi-Fi network payload data that he "thought might prove useful for other Google services," the FCC report said.

Engineer Doe detailed his plans to collect payload information from unencrypted Wi-Fi networks in a design document originally written in October 2006, according to the FCC report. Engineer Doe concluded that the Wi-Fi snooping would not be a major privacy concern because Street View cars would only be near any Wi-Fi network for a short time, and because Google would not release the information it obtained in raw form, according to the FCC report.

Google collected payload information from Wi-Fi networks for two and a half years, starting in January 2008, the FCC report said.

Consumer Watchdog demanded that the Senate subcommittee call Google CEO Larry Page to testify and to grant immunity to Engineer Doe, the engineer tasked by Google to design a Wi-Fi locating program, according to the FCC report.

"Google has repeatedly misrepresented what it did and changed its story of what happened," wrote John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog's Privacy Project director, in a letter to Senator Al Franken, chairman of the privacy subcommittee. "Google ... is trying to portray the FCC order as exonerating the company. That is not the case at all."

Two Google representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comments on the Consumer Watchdog letter.

The FCC document shows that "substantial questions" about the Wi-Fi spying case remain, Simpson wrote. "The FCC order shows a troubling portrait of a company where an engineer could run wild with software code that violates the privacy of tens of millions of people worldwide, but the corporate culture of 'Engineer First' prevented corporate counsel or other engineers from stopping the privacy violations."

Earlier this month, the FCC fined Google US$25,000 for impeding its Wi-Fi snooping investigation.

Consumer Watchdog attorneys are participating in a class action lawsuit against Google in the Wi-Fi spying case.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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