FTC forgives Google’s Wi-Fi spying, others not quite ready to do so just yet

Google CEO Schmidt

(UPDATE 29 Oct. 2010: LastWatchdog has just pieced this together: A couple of days before the FTC forgave Google, CEO Eric Schmidt told CNN’s Kathleen Parker that people who don’t like Google’s StreetView cars photographing their homes should just move. Here’s the video of that interview.  A day later, Schmidt issued an apology, and CNN deleted Schmidt’s  “just move” remarks from the video and transcripts of the interview, as reported by blogger Jon Paczkowski in this post. The very next day, Google received notice, as described below, that the FTC was dropping its Google Wi-Fi spying probe. )

The Federal Trade Commission, for one, completely trusts Google to do a better job respecting people’s privacy as the search giant pursues business initiatives to make more money. But others in the U.S. and abroad aren’t so sure.

At issue is Google’s global use of a practice known as “war driving” to gather data moving across unprotected Wi-Fi networks in homes and businesses across North America, Europe, Australia and Asia. Since 2007, the company has dispatched photographers in fleets of vehicles to take snapshots of street scenes in major cities in more than 30 nations for use in Google maps.

Google spy car

Turns out the cars were also equipped with sophisticated eavesdropping gear configured to capture Wi-Fi signals within range of the vehicle. Google curtailed the practice after Germany privacy regulators complained last May.

Today, David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, sent Google attorney Albert Gidari this two-page letter today saying all is forgiven, as far as the FTC is concerned.

Just last week, Canada’s privacy commissioner revealed that the Wi-Fi data Google harvested from Canadian consumers and businesses included medical info, names and passwords, full e-mails and other sensitive data — not just fragmentary snippets of data as the company had earlier indicated. As a result of Canada’s findings, British privacy regulators on Monday re-opened their probe of Google’s Wi-Fi sniffing on UK soil.

Full FTC pardon

Now aproximately 48 hours later, Vladeck has given Google a full pardon, based on an effusive apology and a list of steps the search giant has said it will take to prevent a recurrence. Google’s mea culpa is outlined in this recent blog post by Alan Eustace, Google’s senior vice president of engineering and research. It illicited this blessing from the FTC’s Vladeck:

Google has made assurances to the FTC that the company has not used and will not use any of the payload data collected in any Google product or service, now or in the future. This assurance is critical to mitigate the potential harm to consumers from the collection of payload data. Because of these commitments, we are ending our inquiry into this matter at this time. We ask that the company continue its dialogue with the FTC about how best to protect consumer privacy as it develops its products and services.

Simpson

Even so, Google is not off the hook in the U.S., nor internationally. Privacy lawsuits in some 35 states and this Congressional inquiry still remain active, says John Simpson, managing director of the non-profit Consumer Watchdog advocacy group. And potential investigations by privacy regulators in other nations continue to brew, leaving open the possibility of fines and sanctions imposed by other nations, he says.

“Once again, Google, with its myriad of government connections, gets a free pass,” said John M. Simpson, director of the nonprofit, nonpartisan group’s Inside Google Project. “At a minimum the public deserved a full report about Google’s abuses from the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. Instead, the company announced a few steps that are little more than window dressing and the FTC caves in with a woefully inadequate two-page letter.”

Update: Italy has become the latest nation to accuse Google of violating privacy laws. The Associated Press reports:

Italian prosecutors said Wednesday they have opened an investigation into Google’s Street View mapping feature for suspected violation of privacy. Google said it would cooperate with authorities and apologized for any inadvertent collection of private data from unencrypted networks in Italy.

The Rome investigation was made public days after Italy’s privacy watchdog asked Google to make sure its data-collecting cars are clearly marked and for the company to keep citizens informed about the vehicles’ routes. The watchdog said the information currently made available by Google is insufficient.

Google said a statement that it was “profoundly sorry for having mistakenly collected payload data from unencrypted networks in Italy.”

“As soon as we realized what had happened, we stopped collecting all WiFi data from our Street View cars and immediately informed the authorities,” the statement said, adding that the data has never been used and was never intended to be used, and that Google wants to delete it as soon as possible.

In February, a Milan judge convicted three Google employees of violating the privacy of an autistic teen because the Internet giant sought profit when it hosted an online video of him being bullied. The three were given suspended six-month sentences in a criminal verdict that was condemned by defenders of Internet freedom.

By Byron Acohido

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