Privacy advocates continue urging for a wider federal investigation into Google Street View practices following Google’s $25,000 fine for stonewalling federal officials during an earlier probe of Wi-Fi snooping allegations.
The Federal Communications Commission late last week gave the Internet giant the maximum fine for impeding its investigation into personal data it collected from unprotected Wi-Fi signals between 2007 and 2010 while gathering images for Street View, a popular feature of Google Maps and Google Earth. Street View vehicles’ antennae picked up passwords, emails, texts and other sensitive data transmitting over unprotected wireless networks as it gathered images along streets.
Though the $25,000 was the largest fine allowed, critics claim the punishment amounts to a “slap on the pinkie” for the multi-billion-dollar enterprise. According to published reports, the FCC said it could not apply currently wiretapping laws to Google’s Wi-Fi snooping (what one politician called ‘Spy-Fi’) because, among other reasons, the unsecured transmisions could be construed as public broadcasts.
Instead, it fined the company for trying to obstruct the investigation by refusing to provide internal emails and documents the FCC requested.
“Although a world leader in digital search capability, Google took the position that searching its employees’ email would be a time-consuming and burdensome task,” the FCC said in a 25-page report.
The French government fined the company about $140,000 last year for privacy violations related to Street View.
In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s executive director asked the Justice Department to pick up where the FCC left off.
“By the agency’s own admission, the investigation conducted was inadequate and did not address the applicability of federal wiretapping law to Google’s interception of emails, user names, passwords, browsing histories and other personal information,” Marc Rotenberg wrote in the letter. “Given 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 Wi-Fi data from residential networks.”
Politicians also joined the rising chorus of outrage.
“The circumstances surrounding Google’s surreptitious siphoning of personal information leave many unanswered questions,” U.S. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass) said Monday, calling for a Congressional hearing.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who took Google to court in 2010 over Street View when he was the state’s attorney general, argued that the company’s lack of transparency is troubling. “Google’s failure to initially cooperate undermines their claim and federal agencies’ conclusions that they violated no federal laws.”
A Google spokeswoman told news outlets, including The Los Angeles Times, that the company disagreed with how the FCC characterized the company’s lack of cooperation and would be issuing a formal response. Google has maintained the data collections were accidental.
Others openly speculated on what the ultimate outcome could be for not just Google but any company that stumbles upon sensitive data from unprotected wireless networks. “At which point in the court of public opinion does it become questionable that that is good behavior or not?” asked David Bennahum, CEO of Punch Media, on Monday’s “PBS News Hour.”
“I think the problem right now is we live in an environment where it’s incredibly easy to collect this sort of information. And the rules about it are actually fairly gray,” he continued. “It puts companies in a particular predicament where they may have some good-faith reasons to want to analyze [and] study information, but the rules of the road are sufficiently unclear, that it turns out they have commited a grave error.”