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Google Knew About Wi-Fi Data Harvesting

New evidence suggests Google’s collection of personal data from Wi-Fi networks by its Street View cars was not the work of a rogue engineer.

Google has claimed that the collection of personal information from wireless networks across the country by its Street View fleet was the work of a rogue engineer without the aid or knowledge of anyone else at the company. However, new details from a FCC investigative report suggest that supervisors and managers within the Street View program knew about the data harvesting, including receiving a detailed report from the engineer in October of 2006 detailing everything that had been done and that payload data, which included website requests, emails, passwords, and other personal information.

Google maintains that the information was never used in other initiatives within the program, but when the FCC requested the data Google had collected, they were refused. Google claimed that if they were to hand over the information, they could be breaking federal privacy and wiretapping laws. The data was collected from 2007 to 2010, with no less than seven engineers working on the code, five of whom tested the code, and one who went through it line by line to review for bugs or errors.

Many questions about the case still remain. The FCC was blocked by the engineer at the heart of the data harvesting plan, called “Engineer Doe” in the FCC report, who invoked his Fifth Amendment right to protect himself from self-incrimination. However, the FCC found that, since the data was unencrypted and being broadcast to anyone with the capability to listen to Wi-Fi signals, the data was not protected by federal wiretapping laws. Despite finding that Google was not in violation of any laws, the FCC fined Google $25,000 for obstructing the investigation.

Google’s attorney, E. Ashton Johnson, sent a letter to the FCC accepting the fine and ending the investigation. However, in that letter, Johnson attacks the FCC, claiming that the company had done nothing wrong and that it was the FCC itself which had obstructed and prolonged the investigation, with investigators dragging their feet and filing for extensions to the investigation, which Google accepted voluntarily. As Johnson points out in the letter, “This is hardly the act of a party stonewalling the investigation.”

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