Last spring, Google found itself on the receiving end of a fair amount of consternation from the technology press, privacy advocates, and several European countries. German officials accused the search giant of using its ubiquitous Street View cars to do more than merely snap those unsettling panoramic shots of your house and neighborhood. Those official Google vehicles, slowly trolling the streets of the Western world's highways and byways with their conspicuous roof-mounted camera stalks, were also collecting "samples of payload data from WiFi networks," Google admitted in April on its official blog, in response to the accusation.
The payload data in question could consist of any information being transmitted by users over unprotected Wi-Fi networks within range of the Street View vehicles-including personal information such as email messages, URLs, and passwords.
In mid-May, a few weeks after the controversy (which some in the blogosphere had already dubbed the "Wi-Spy scandal") began, Google sought to dispel fears that it had any nefarious intentions to exploit the data, saying that it had collected it inadvertently. The company further defended itself by claiming that, for a variety of technical reasons, the data it collected wasn't even complete.
In a follow-up blog post addressing the situation, Alan Eustace, senior VP of engineering and research at Google, wrote, "[W]e will typically have collected only fragments of payload data because: our cars are on the move; someone would need to be using the network as a car passed by; and our in-car WiFi equipment automatically changes channels roughly five times a second. In addition, we did not collect information traveling over secure, password-protected WiFi networks."
Undeterred by Google's attempt to quell the uproar, the governments of France, Italy, Germany, and other European countries launched investigations into Google's data collection practices.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was the first agency to take up the case in the U.S. It ultimately concluded that Google had taken sufficient steps in response to the situation to assure the FTC that no further action would be necessary. "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," wrote David C. Vladeck, the director of the bureau of consumer protection, in a letter to Google.
Google once again took to its official blog for what it seemed to think would be one last mea culpa. "We are mortified by what happened, but confident that these changes to our processes and structure will significantly improve our internal privacy and security practices for the benefit of all our users," Eustace wrote.
Consumer groups, however, were far from satisfied with the FTC's conclusion or with Google's apology. John Simpson, the director of the Inside Google project at the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, accused Google of getting a free pass from the government and pressed for further investigation and recourse for the company.
Privacy advocates had an ally in Connecticut's former attorney general Richard Blumenthal, who, with the backing of 40 other states, issued a Civil Investigative Demand-the equivalent of a subpoena-to Google in December 2010.
The demand directed the company to turn over the Wi-Fi payload that its Street View cars collected from unsecured networks to the state.
However, while Blumenthal may have been gearing up for a fight-particularly after Google refused to comply with the demand–his successor as attorney general, George Jepsen, who took office in January after Blumenthal was elected to the U.S. Senate, took a different tack. Jepsen reached an agreement with Google to settle the matter out of court.
In a press release announcing the decision to settle the case with Google, Jepsen was quoted as saying, "[W]e can proceed to negotiate a settlement of the critical privacy issues implicated here without the need for a protracted and costly fight in the courts, although we are ready to do so if we are unable to come to a satisfactory agreement through negotiation."
Assistant attorney general Phillip Rosario, reached by phone, concurred that a negotiated settlement yields faster results. "With a trial, you have findings of fact and a verdict. A negotiation allows you to reach an agreement without as long of a findings process," Rosario says. Once again, consumer groups and privacy advocates were disappointed with the outcome.
"The details of the biggest privacy breach in history shouldn't be settled in secret," Consumer Watchdog's Simpson says. It is now imperative, Simpson insists, that Congress call Google CEO Eric Schmidt to testify on the subject so that the public can be made aware of the details of when, why, and how the company collected personal data.
Consumer Watchdog went so far as to produce a satirical video in which it depicts a computer-animated Schmidt sitting in a hearing room taking questions from a senator. When the animated senator asks how he can avoid being "spied on," the animated Schmidt replies, "Senator, you could move. Or you could change your name."
The sinister cartoon CEO continues, "Senator, we know where you are, we know where you've been, we can more or less know what you're thinking about."
Simpson is hopeful that a couple of recent developments will help to shed more light on what Google did and why. The first was a request from two congressmen-John Barrow, D-Ga.,and Mike Rogers, R-Mich.-for the Federal Communications Commission to launch a full investigation into the incident.
The second development was the creation of the Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law under the Senate Judiciary Committee. This subcommittee, chaired by Senator Al Franken, D-Minn., would have jurisdiction over the set of issues related to Google's collection of payload data, and it would be in a position to hold the kind of hearings that Simpson would like to see. Adding to the likelihood that the new subcommittee will take up the issue: Newly elected Senator Blumenthal is one of its members.
Speaking to the online political newspaper POLITICO, Blumenthal said, "There's a range of potential opportunities for oversight and scrutiny by a member of the U.S. Congress-including letters, meetings hearings, and potentially even legislation."