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FCC investigates Google for Street View privacy breach

By Cecilia Kang

The Federal Communications Commission said Wednesday it is investigating a data breach by Google, whose Street View mapping cars scooped up e-mail addresses and passwords from unencrypted residential Wi-Fi networks.

“Last month, Google disclosed that its Street View cars collected passwords, e-mails and other personal information wirelessly from unsuspecting people across the country,” said Michele Ellison, the FCC's enforcement bureau chief. “In light of their public disclosure, we can now confirm that the Enforcement Bureau is looking into whether these actions violate the Communications Act."

She said the investigation was intended to ensure consumers affected "receive a full and fair accounting."

The FCC wouldn't describe details of its investigation, first reported by The Wall Street Journal. But communications law experts said the investigation likely focuses on a federal law that prohibits the unauthorized publication or use of messages that are intercepted over radio networks. The investigation comes weeks after the Federal Trade Commission closed its own investigation into Google's Street View privacy lapse.

Google's cars took pictures around the world for ground-level views of homes and neighborhoods for its Street View maps application. Those cars were also used to collect information about Wi-Fi network locations that Google hoped to put into a database for its location-based services. Google has apologized for the data breach, discovered by German regulators last May, and stopped collecting Wi-Fi information from those mapping cars.

The FCC has acknowledged concerns about the episode in the past but said for the first time that it had launched an official probe. Investigations at the FCC are private.
The Electronic Privacy and Information Center, a privacy advocacy group, asked the FCC last May to investigate Google for breaking rules that protect consumer privacy over communications networks.

EPIC said Google secretly intercepted and stored user communications data, an act that violated federal wiretap laws as well as the Communications Act.

Google, however, said the data collection was accidental and that it had stopped collecting data on the locations of Wi-Fi networks.

The FCC inquiry comes after another agency closed its own probe of Google's Wi-Fi privacy lapse. The Federal Trade Commission said late last month that it had ended its investigation after Google sufficiently promised to change its practices and delete the Internet user information it had collected from its Street View cars.

The United Kingdom said late last month that Google's admission to collecting user information violated its privacy laws. Germany and other European countries have placed strict conditions on Google's ability to show pictures of homes. More than 200,000 German users opted out of Street View maps, and the company blurred those residents' homes.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass), co-chair of the House privacy caucus, has asked Google CEO Eric Schmidt to explain how the privacy lapse occured with the Street View cars.

"I commend the commission for taking action -- the potential for this technology to be used for drive-by snopping into people's personal lives is not something to be taken lightly," Markey said in a statement., "I will continue to monitor developmnets in this important area."

By Cecilia Kang  | November 10, 2010; 3:48 PM ET
Categories:  FCC, FTC, Google, Privacy  
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Comments

It is impossible to "accidentally" collect wi-fi locations with all attached email addresses when you're driving around in a car taking pictures.

Someone or some committee at google ordered this data to be collected.

They should go to prison.

Posted by: pierrecasteneda | November 11, 2010 11:50 AM | Report abuse

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