Unanswered Questions in FCC’s Google Case

The Federal Communications Commission censured Google for obstructing an inquiry into the Street View project, which had collected Internet communications from potentially millions of unknowing households as specially equipped cars drove slowly by.

But the investigation, described in an interim report, was left unresolved because a critical participant, the Google engineer in charge of the project, cited his Fifth Amendment right and declined to talk. It is unclear who else at Google might have known about the data gathering, or when they might have known.

Google maintains that the data gathering was unauthorized, according to a person with knowledge of the matter, but the engineer is maintaining that other people at the company knew about it.

Google was fined $25,000 for obstruction, a penalty it can challenge. It and the F.C.C. are wrangling over how much information can be revealed in the final report. In the interim report, many passages were heavily redacted.

Privacy advocates said the F.C.C. report was only a start.

“I appreciate that the F.C.C. sanctioned Google for not cooperating in the investigation, but the much bigger problem is the pervasive and covert surveillance of Internet users that Google undertook over a three-year period,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. He said that on Monday he would ask the Justice Department to investigate Google over wiretapping.

Google said Sunday that it disagreed with the F.C.C.’s characterization of its lack of cooperation, but that its collection of what is called payload data — Internet communications, including texts and e-mails — was legal, if regrettable. “It was a mistake for us to include code in our software that collected payload data, but we believe we did nothing illegal,” a spokeswoman said.

As part of the Street View project, as Google was collecting photographs on every street, it was also gathering information about local wireless networks to improve location-based searches.

But the Google engineer wrote a program for the project that went beyond what was originally envisioned. Using this program, Google collected unencrypted data sent by computers.

The data proved be a snapshot of what people were doing at the moment the cars rolled by — e-mailing a lover, texting jokes to a buddy, balancing a checkbook, looking up an ailment. Google spent more than two years scooping up that information, from January 2008 to April 2010.

The photographs were used to refine Google’s maps, the wireless information to improve searches. Google had not figured out what, if anything, to do with the personal data, nor had it even looked at it, when rumors about the secret project began in 2010.

Google first said it had not collected personal data. Then it said such data was in fragments. Then it conceded there were things like entire e-mails. People, mostly in Europe, were furious.

Even in the United States, where regulators take a more restrained approach to privacy issues than in Europe, there was widespread concern. A multistate inquiry was begun by state attorneys general. The Federal Trade Commission looked into it.

Google, by simultaneously apologizing, promising to do better and saying as little as possible, made the issue go away.

Coincidentally, the F.C.C. opened its investigation of the Street View project on the same day in October 2010 that the F.T.C. ended its inquiry.

While staff members from the two entities spoke about their efforts, they were looking at potential violations of different statutes and their investigations took place separately.

Kevin J. O’Brien and Somini Sengupta contributed reporting.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/16/technology/fccs-google-case-leaves-unanswered-questions.html

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