Google Takes More Heat in Wi-Fi Privacy Flap

Two House lawmakers are calling on the Federal Trade Commission to
investigate Google’s accidental collection of sensitive Wi-Fi data,
echoing the calls of several European regulators in a mounting
controversy for the search giant.

Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas), co-chairs of the
House Privacy Caucus, asked FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz in a letter whether the sensitive data Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) collected
with its StreetView cars constituted an unfair and deceptive trade
practice or whether it violated federal law.

The lawmakers also asked for detailed information about the Internet
traffic that Google inadvertently collected when it equipped the cars
in its StreetView fleet with software designed to collect only basic,
non-sensitive Wi-Fi data.

“Thus far, Google has acknowledged it collected private e-mail and
Internet surfing data, but it has not yet clarified the extent or nature
of the data collected,” Markey and Barton wrote.

The lawmakers’ call for an FTC probe follows mounting scrutiny over
the Wi-Fi data interception in Europe, where several countries including
Germany, Italy and Spain have opened criminal investigations into the

Google apologized for collecting
the data last week, calling it a mistake that resulted from an
experimental piece of code that was inadvertently included in the
software used by the cars Google dispatches to photograph cities block
by block for its StreetView product.

The StreetView cars began collecting basic Wi-Fi information such as
network names and equipment ID numbers in 2007 in an effort to improve
Google’s location-based services, but the company said it never intended
to intercept the contents of people’s Internet transmissions.

A Google spokesman declined to comment on the investigations beyond a
statement e-mailed to “As we have said since
we made our announcement last week, we are working with the relevant
authorities to answer their questions and concerns.”

Revelations of the StreetView gaffe come at a time of heightened
scrutiny for Internet companies as government officials and advocacy
groups are stepping up calls for tighter rules policing the way firms
collect and use consumers’ online information.

Facebook, for instance, has been the subject of pointed criticism for
a recent set of policy changes that made its users’ information more
widely available on the Web. Consumer groups have called on the FTC to
investigate the company, while the agency is in the midst of a broader
proceeding looking into online privacy that could see new guidelines or
rules for social networks.

Facebook has also been meeting with congressional staffers as some
lawmakers have grown concerned about the company’s complex and
often-changing privacy settings.

One of the groups that has been sharply critical of Facebook’s
approach to privacy, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, today lashed
out at Google for what it called the “Wi-Fi debacle.”

“Google is too mature to be making these kinds of rookie privacy
mistakes,” EFF Civil Liberties Director Jennifer Graneck wrote in a blog post. “When you are in the business of
collecting and monetizing other people’s personal data-as Google and so
many other internet businesses are-clear standards and comprehensive
auditing are essential to protect against improper collection, use or
leakage of private information.”

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at, the news
service of, the
network for technology professionals.