Congressional Panel Seeks WiFi Data Answers From Google

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SAN FRANCISCO (Dow Jones) — A U.S.
Congressional committee has sent a letter to Google Inc. (GOOG) seeking
details on how the Internet search giant’s Street View cars
accidentally collected private data from unsecured wireless networks.

The May 26 letter from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce
contains a list of 12 questions aimed at clarifying the scope of
Google’s data collection and what the company has done with the
personal data it gathered.

The letter suggests that Google could face a worsening
public-relations crisis after the Mountain View, Calif., company
acknowledged on May 14 that vehicles it deployed to create its online
mapping services had inadvertently gathered information about people’s
website usage.

“We are concerned that Google did not disclose until long after the
fact that consumers’ Internet use was being recorded, analyzed and
perhaps profiled. In addition, we are concerned about the completeness
and accuracy of Google’s public explanations about this matter,” said
the letter, signed by Reps. Joe Barton (R., Texas), Henry Waxman (D.,
Calif.) and Edward Markey (D., Mass.).

“As we have said before, this was a mistake. Google did nothing
illegal and we look forward to answering questions from these
congressional leaders,” a Google spokesperson said in an email.

The Internet search giant’s market clout and privacy practices had
already put it under increased scrutiny from regulators and government
officials in the U.S. and Europe. But pressure on Google is likely to
be ratcheted up after it said it inadvertently gathered “payload
data”–fragments of web pages and email messages–when its roving
vehicles collected WiFi data for use in location-based products.

“We understand that this data collection first came to light in
Europe, but it now appears based on media reports that this practice
was pervasive in the United States as well,” the committee members

The committee wants Google to reveal the percentage of U.S. roads
scanned as part of its Street View program and whether all vehicles
documenting U.S. roads were monitoring or collecting WiFi transmissions
at all times during those activities.

The letter also asks Google to reveal how many U.S. consumers were
subject to data collection, whether affected communities provided
consent and how that data was used.

The company’s admission, prompted by pressure from German
regulators, sparked an outcry across Europe and in the U.S., where
Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz said his agency will
look into the matter.

Meanwhile, consumer advocacy group Consumer Watchdog on Wednesday
urged state attorneys general to investigate whether the company broke
wiretap, privacy and unfair business practices laws.

The group also called on state authorities to demand that Google
preserve all documents relating to its data-collection activities
because they could be evidence in criminal or civil cases.

Google’s actions have already prompted a series of class actions
alleging Google violated federal and state privacy laws.

The company had previously said it was reaching out to relevant
countries’ governments and privacy experts about how best to dispose of
the data as quickly as possible.

Contact the author Scott Morrison, Dow Jones Newswires, at;
415-765-6118  or  [email protected]

Consumer Watchdog
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