Science and Health

US opens inquiry into Google data collection

Updated: 2010-11-11 09:39
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WASHINGTON - The Federal Communications Commission is investigating whether Google Inc broke the law by inadvertently sucking up fragments of e-mails, Internet passwords, Web surfing behavior and other online activities over public Wi-Fi networks while photographing neighborhoods for its "Street View" mapping feature.

The probe by the FCC comes two weeks after the Federal Trade Commission concluded its own inquiry into the problem, which Google said it discovered following an investigation by German regulators.

While the FTC criticized the search giant for collecting potentially sensitive information over unsecured wireless networks for several years before realizing it, the agency said it is satisfied that Google has taken adequate measures to improve its internal privacy controls. Those include privacy training for all 23,000 of the company's employees

The FCC inquiry, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, will focus on whether Google violated a federal law that prohibits the unauthorized publication or use of messages intercepted over radio networks.

"As the agency charged with overseeing the public airwaves, we are committed to ensuring that the consumers affected by this breach of privacy receive a full and fair accounting," Michele Ellison, head of the FCC's Enforcement Bureau, said in a statement.

Google has said it gathered about 600 gigabytes of data _ enough to fill about six floors of an academic library _ in more than 30 nations and wants to delete all of the information as soon it's cleared to do so in all affected countries. But the company is facing a number of investigations both in the US and overseas.

In addition to the FCC, a coalition of state attorneys general is examining the data collection and several prominent House members have criticized the company. Authorities in several other countries, including Italy, are also looking into the problem.

Last month, an investigation by Canada's Privacy Commissioner concluded that Google violated Canadian privacy law by collecting highly sensitive personal information _ including complete e-mail messages, e-mail addresses, telephone numbers and even personal medical details _ affecting thousands of citizens. The report blamed the episode on "an engineer's careless error as well as a lack of controls to ensure that necessary procedures to protect privacy were followed."

Reacting to the FCC inquiry on Wednesday, Google stressed that the incident was simply a mistake, that it did not want the data and that it has never used the information in any of its products and services. "As we have said before, we are profoundly sorry for having mistakenly collected payload data from unencrypted networks," the company said in a statement.