Google tells Congress data collection was lawful mistake

[JURIST] Google [corporate website; JURIST news archive] claims that its collection of private information over Wi-Fi networks for its Street View maps was inadvertent and did not violate any laws, according to a letter [text, PDF] released Friday by the Energy and Commerce Committee of the US House of Representatives [official websites]. Last month, committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA), Ranking Member Joe Barton (R-TX) and Representative Edward Markey (D-MA) [official websites] sent a letter to Google [text, PDF] outlining several questions regarding the company's data harvesting practices and its use of the collected payload data. In Google's letter, the Internet giant claimed that the collection of private data was a "mistake" and apologized for collecting fragments of e-mails, search requests and other online activities over unencrypted Wi-Fi networks. Google also claims that its inadvertent data collection was lawful:

The payload data has never been used in any Google product or service, nor do we intend to use it. ... As soon as we became aware of this problem, we grounded our Street View cars and segregated the payload data on our network. We then removed the data from the Google network so that it is inaccessible to anyone other than those responsible for securing the data, and we continue to take steps to safeguard payload data. Collection of WiFi payload data was a mistake. The payload data has never been used in any Google product or service, nor do we intend to use it. ... We believe it does not violate U.S. law to collect payload data from networks that are configured to be openly accessible (i.e., not secured by encryption and thus accessible by any user's device). We emphasize that being lawful and being the right thing to do are two different things, and that collecting payload data was a mistake for which we are profoundly sorry.
Barton found Google's practices "deeply troubling" [CQ report], stating that Google had been collecting private data for years and is still unaware of who has been affected. Markey claims that Google "fell short" of taking appropriate actions to protect the privacy of its consumers. Barton and Markey solicited the response from Google as part of a recent investigation into the company's data harvesting techniques by the US Federal Trade Commission [official website].

Several investigations have recently been launched into Google's unencrypted data collections to determine whether the company's practices have violated privacy laws. Earlier this week, Australia commenced an investigation [JURIST report] into whether Google breached the nation's Telecommunications Interception Act [text], which prevents people from accessing electronic communications other than for authorized purposes. Canada launched an investigation [JURIST report] last week into Google's unsecured Wi-Fi data collection to determine whether Google has violated the country's Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act [text, PDF], which applies to private organizations that collect, use, or disclose personal information in the course of commercial activities. Belgium, the UK, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland have also asked Google to retain data collected in those respective nations. On Thursday, Google was accused by advocacy group Privacy International (PI) [advocacy website] of criminal intent [JURIST report] for the company's private data collection. PI released its statement in response an independent audit [text, PDF] published by Google on the company's official blog [website]. PI claims that information gathered in the audit proves that Google's interception of unencrypted data was not inadvertent and should lead to prosecution.

 

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