FTC Likely to Examine Google’s Wireless Gaffe

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The U.S. Federal Trade
Commission is likely to open a preliminary inquiry into Google Inc.’s disclosure
that it accidentally harvested data from unsecured wireless networks for
several years, several people familiar with the matter said.

process is at an embryonic stage and whether the FTC has begun
gathering information from other parties about the incident remains
unclear. Any resulting investigation wouldn’t necessarily lead to
action. But if the FTC decides to pursue, it would be the latest federal
inquiry to examine the Internet search giant’s behavior.

FTC’s Bureau of Competition is currently deciding whether to challenge
Google’s proposed $750 million takeover of mobile advertising company
AdMob Inc. At the same time, the FTC’s consumer protection arm is
conducting a wide-ranging review of the ways in which online companies
collect and employ data about their users’ online behavior.

this case, the Bureau of Consumer Protection is the most likely part of
the FTC to be tasked with investigating whether the behavior detailed in
Google’s latest admission broke any laws.

An FTC spokeswoman
declined to comment. A Google spokeswoman also declined to comment
beyond the company’s blog post Friday.

In it, the company said it
had discovered that the roving cars it uses to create its online mapping
services were inadvertently gathering data from people’s web use over
"Wi-Fi" networks without passwords.

Google said it was "reaching
out to regulators in the relevant countries about how to quickly
dispose" of the data the company had collected. The post also said that
Google would ask a third-party to review the software and what data it

On Monday, Google updated its blog post saying it had
started to erase some of the data it said it had inadvertently collected
in Ireland after the Irish Data Protection Authority requested it do
so. If the FTC opens a formal investigation, some legal experts said
they would probably ask that Google preserve the relevant data.

advocacy group Consumer Watchdog said Monday it was sending the FTC a
letter urging the agency to investigate the mishap. John Simpson, the
group’s consumer advocate, said he was concerned that Google’s promise
to get third-parties to review the software in question was

Other privacy advocates said it was unclear whether
the FTC was the correct agency to review the matter and that they would
wait to see how European authorities—who have been scrutinizing
Google’s collection of Wi-Fi information for months—reacted before
deciding whether to petition U.S. regulators to intervene.

Write to Thomas Catan at [email protected] and
Jessica E. Vascellaro at [email protected]

Consumer Watchdog
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