FCC investigating Google over Street View

Agency joins growing list of regulators looking at whether Google broke privacy laws

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) confirmed on Wednesday that it is investigating whether Google broke any federal eavesdropping laws when collecting data for its controversial Street View mapping service.

The investigation stems from Google's disclosure recently that its Street View cars collected passwords, e-mails and other personal information from unprotected residential wireless networks, the FCC said in a statement.

In light of Google's disclosure, "we can now confirm that the Enforcement Bureau is looking into whether these actions violate the Communications Act," Michele Ellison, chief of the FCC's Enforcement Bureau, said in the statement.

"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 FCC statement said.

The FCC's investigation adds to the growing list of organizations that are looking into whether Google broke any laws when collecting data for Street View.

In May, Google disclosed that the accidental inclusion of code written for an experimental Wi-Fi project was causing its Street View vehicles to inadvertently collect "payload" data from unprotected Wi-Fi networks along the routes.

Google said that it has since removed the code and stopped collecting any Wi-Fi data.

The company's disclosure has prompted regulators in several countries, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada and South Korea, to launch investigations into the matter.

In the U.S. in June, Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal announced that he was launching a multistate investigation into "Google's deeply disturbing invasion of personal privacy."

The Federal Trade Commission also launched a similar investigation earlier this year but closed it last month as a result of what it said was Google's assurances that it would delete any data that it had collected and not use it in any manner.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), which in May had asked the FCC for an investigation into Google's Street View data collection, today welcomed the investigation.

EPIC president Marc Rotenberg said by e-mail that none of Google's Wi-Fi collection activities would have to light if European data protection officials hadn't opened an investigation. "The public also does not understand that while the interception of communications traffic may have been accidental, the collection of Wi-Fi device name and location information was not," Rotenberg said.

Google reiterated what it has been saying since the controversy first began. "We are profoundly sorry for having mistakenly collected payload data from unencrypted networks," the company said in a statement.

As soon as Google realized what was happening it stopped collecting all Wi-Fi data from its Street View cars and informed appropriate authorities, the company said. "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," the company said, adding that it will delete the data as "soon as possible."

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at  @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

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