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Lawmakers grill Google's Eric Schmidt on 'Spy-Fi' privacy issue

May 26, 2010 | 11:59 am
Streetview
A Google Street View camera. Credit: Daniel Mihailescu / AFP/Getty.

A bipartisan group of congressional representatives wrote a letter to Google Inc. chief executive Eric Schmidt, grilling him over what they called Google's 'Spy-Fi' data collection.  The company's Street View mapping vehicles had collected three years' worth of data about wireless access points around the world -- including personal communications that were being sent over those Wi-Fi networks.

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

On Tuesday, Google confirmed to The Times that before regulators' questioning, the company had never disclosed its Wi-Fi collection practices directly to its users.  The company pointed out that the practice was not secret -- it had been documented in a Wikipedia article and elsewhere -- but Google had not itself told users that its cars were recording Wi-Fi information.  

Whether its Wi-Fi data collection practices were "widely known," as it claimed in a letter to several international data collection agencies, is less clear.

The lawmakers sent Schmidt a dozen questions asking for clarification on the scope and depth of the information collected by Street View vehicles, including whether Google has "analyzed and used" the data in any way, or had plans to in the future. 

The letter also asked if Google had ever conducted a legal analysis about whether consumer privacy laws applied to its collection of more than 600 gigabytes of Wi-Fi data. 

Google began to explain its Wi-Fi collection in late April after European regulators began asking the company what kinds of data its mapping cars were collecting.  At first, Google said it did not collect so-called "payload data" -- the actual content of users that could include e-mails and personal information.  But then Google did an about-face, saying it had indeed been collecting snippets of private data because of an oversight in the way its software was written.

Because of this revelation, regulators in several countries have begun inquiries into why and how Google could have amassed a trove of private data without the awareness or consent of its users.

Last week, Barton and Markey -- the co-chairmen of the House Privacy Caucus, wrote to Federal Trade Commission chief Jon Leibowitz suggesting his agency should independently investigate the matter. 

Leibowitz has told a Senate committee that the FTC would "take a very, very close look at this," and that it was "one example of why consumers have very serious privacy concerns about data that's being collected."

-- David Sarno

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