Google questioned on home Wi-Fi breaches

Posted May 27, 2010 at 7:14 a.m.

wifi-google.jpgDow Jones Newswires | A U.S. Congressional committee has sent a
letter to Google Inc. seeking details on how the Internet search
giant’s Street View cars accidentally collected private data from
unsecured wireless networks.

The May 26 letter from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce
contains a list of 12 questions aimed at clarifying the scope of
Google’s data collection and what the company has done with the
personal data it gathered.

A Google employee plots streets on a camera-equipped tricycle for Google’s Street View Maps. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon, File)

The letter suggests that Google could face a worsening public-relations crisis after the Mountain View, Calif., company acknowledged on May 14 that vehicles it deployed to create its online mapping services had inadvertently gathered information about people’s website usage.

“We are concerned that Google did not disclose until long after the fact that consumers’ Internet use was being recorded, analyzed and perhaps profiled. In addition, we are concerned about the completeness and accuracy of Google’s public explanations about this matter,” said the letter, signed by Reps. Joe Barton (R., Texas), Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) and Edward Markey (D., Mass.).

“As we have said before, this was a mistake. Google did nothing illegal and we look forward to answering questions from these congressional leaders,” a Google spokesperson said in an email.

The Internet search giant’s market clout and privacy practices had already put it under increased scrutiny from regulators and government officials in the U.S. and Europe. But pressure on Google is likely to be ratcheted up after it said it inadvertently gathered “payload data”–fragments of web pages and email messages–when its roving vehicles collected WiFi data for use in location-based products.

“We understand that this data collection first came to light in Europe, but it now appears based on media reports that this practice was pervasive in the United States as well,” the committee members wrote.

The committee wants Google to reveal the percentage of U.S. roads scanned as part of its Street View program and whether all vehicles documenting U.S. roads were monitoring or collecting WiFi transmissions at all times during those activities.

The letter also asks Google to reveal how many U.S. consumers were subject to data collection, whether affected communities provided consent and how that data was used.

The company’s admission, prompted by pressure from German regulators, sparked an outcry across Europe and in the U.S., where Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz said his agency will look into the matter.

Meanwhile, consumer advocacy group Consumer Watchdog on Wednesday urged state attorneys general to investigate whether the company broke wiretap, privacy and unfair business practices laws.

The group also called on state authorities to demand that Google preserve all documents relating to its data-collection activities because they could be evidence in criminal or civil cases.

Google’s actions have already prompted a series of class actions alleging Google violated federal and state privacy laws.

The company had previously said it was reaching out to relevant countries’ governments and privacy experts about how best to dispose of the data as quickly as possible.

-By Scott Morrison, Dow Jones Newswires; 415-765-6118;



  1. The Truth May 27, 2010 at 1:05 pm

    It’s about time. This has been in more-credible news sources for almost two weeks, the lesser outlets are now picking up on it. And of course, your average American slave selling themselves to the corporations on the installment plan turns a blind eye to this. I guess some Americans are so complacent and subjugated that they just take it as a given that corporations undermine people’s interests.
    I hope Google is sued, and even criminally charged, for this breach of confidence. This is certainly not the company I want administering my television service, my internet browser or any other consumer product. This company has made a point of demonstrating the contempt they hold for both customers and the public at large. And then they come up with this pathetic, absurd excuse that they “didn’t know” and that it was an “accident.” Yeah…the software to read the wi-fi signals was “accidentally” installed. What’s Google’s next venture, bridge sales?
    Americans should have done like some Britons did, and chase these Google employees out of their towns, using physical force when and where necessary.

  2. Sally Ride May 27, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    Dear “The Truth”,
    You’re really wound tight, aren’t you? Chase Google employees out of town? Something tells me you’re also a tea-bagger, all pizzed off about everything and mad at everybody.
    Get a grip, pal. Google ain’t hurting you, and foaming at the mouth won’t help.

  3. Moonlgting May 27, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    Isn’t this a bit of an oxymoron? They collected private data from unsecured wireless networks. If the networks are unsecured, then they’re not private. That’s like picking up a bill someone left laying in the street. It’s like bitching because someone walked into your house when you left the door unlocked, or complaining that your car was stolen but you left it unlocked with the keys in it. If you don’t want someone hopping on your wifi, secure it. If you’re too stupid to figure out how to do that, hire someone to do it, or stay hardwired.

  4. Chris C May 27, 2010 at 5:22 pm

    Agree with Moonlgting: I’m in IT, but just paid GeekSquad to set up wireless. I have neither the time nor mental energy to deal with obtuse and incomplete setup instructions provided by vendors. And not enough wine to drink in the process of setting it up.
    that said, I’ve become increasingly cynical and mistrusting of these “we won’t share” comments during requests for permission to trap data during support scans. I hope this becomes a warning that the ‘poor dumb user’ ain’t so dumb anymore, and those that never were are becoming savvy enough to look for signs of privacy breaches. To hell with worrying about big brother government; in the world of commerce, the ethics lines are being covered by dollar bills.

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