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Privacy watchdogs call for new Google probe

SAN FRANCISCO — Privacy watchdogs are urging the nation’s top law enforcer to launch a new investigation into Google Inc. after the Federal Communications Commission did not find evidence that the Mountain View, Calif., company broke eavesdropping laws in collecting Internet data from millions of unknowing U.S. households.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, the Washington advocacy group that filed the original complaint with the FCC over Google’s controversial data-collection practices, sent a letter Monday to U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. calling the FCC’s probe insufficient.

“By the agency’s own admission, the investigation conducted was inadequate and did not address the applicability of federal wiretapping law to Google’s interception of emails, user names, passwords, browsing histories and other personal information,” EPIC’s Executive Director Marc Rotenberg wrote in the letter. “Given the inadequacy of the FCC’s investigation and the law enforcement responsibilities of the attorney general, EPIC urges you to investigate Google’s collection of personal Wi-Fi data from residential networks.”

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called for Congress to hold a hearing “to get to the bottom of this serious situation.”

“The circumstances surrounding Google’s surreptitious siphoning of personal information leave many unanswered questions,” he said Monday.

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The FCC said late Friday that it would fine Google $25,000 for obstructing its investigation of the search giant’s Street View service. Privacy advocates dismissed the proposed penalty as negligible for a company that had nearly $38 billion in revenue last year and stands accused of snooping on people’s private information and stonewalling investigators.

As part of its Street View project, Google sent specially equipped cars into U.S. streets to snap photos of homes and buildings in an ambitious attempt to map the country, block by block. But from May 2007 to May 2010, Google also collected sensitive information from unencrypted home wireless networks, including emails, passwords and search histories.

News of Google’s snooping caused an uproar when it was disclosed in 2010, leading the FCC to launch its investigation. But in announcing its proposed fine last week, the agency said it did not find proof that Google had violated the federal communications law that bans electronic eavesdropping.

The FCC said its probe ran into two insurmountable hurdles: There is no precedent to apply the FCC law to unprotected Wi-Fi networks, and the agency did not uncover enough evidence that Google had violated federal rules.

Google, which has apologized for the data collection, denied the FCC’s assertion that the company did not cooperate with the agency. It has 30 days from the FCC’s April 13 report to contest or pay the proposed fine.

“We disagree with the FCC’s characterization of our cooperation in their investigation and will be filing a response,” a Google spokeswoman wrote in an emailed statement.

Ryan Calo, director of privacy at Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society, called the proposed $25,000 fine a “slap on the pinkie.”

“Google’s Street View cars drove right over consumers’ personal privacy while cruising city streets and neighborhoods. Consumers saw their Wi-Fi morph into ‘spy-fi,’” said Markey, who was one of three House members who pressed Google in 2010 for details about its collection of Wi-Fi information.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who as Connecticut attorney general in 2010 went to court to try to force Google to turn over consumer data it had collected as part of its Street View service, also called on the Justice Department and states’ attorneys general to investigate.

“Google’s failure to initially cooperate undermines their claim and federal agencies’ conclusions that they violated no federal laws,” Blumenthal said.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski had no comment, a spokeswoman said.

Connecticut and several other states launched their own inquiry in July 2010. That inquiry is still underway, said a spokeswoman for Connecticut Atty. Gen. George Jepsen, Blumenthal’s successor. Blumenthal said he would continue his efforts to update federal laws to cover modern digital communication.

The Street View controversy is just one of several privacy flaps in the U.S. and overseas to raise questions about Google’s treatment of the voluminous data it collects on consumers around the globe. Some analysts said a 25-page order from the FCC criticizing Google for delaying and impeding its investigation by not complying with requests for information or access to employees could sow seeds of doubt with consumers and strike a blow to Google’s public image.

“Everybody believed them when they said this was all a mistake. Now the report from the FCC is raising questions about why Google might be uncooperative,” said Greg Sterling, an analyst at Opus Research. “For those that are inclined to see Google as a malevolent force, this just plays into that perception. For those who haven’t made up their mind about Google, this is probably going to erode the benefit of the doubt that Google has gotten.”

The FCC investigation began in 2010. At the time, an agency official wrote on the FCC’s blog that the collection of millions of consumers’ personal information “clearly infringes on consumer privacy.”

According to the FCC, starting in May 2007, Google collected highly sensitive personal information from unencrypted wireless networks while its vehicles took pictures for Street View, which displays the pictures in Google Maps. Google said it stopped collecting the information in May 2010.

Google at first denied it was collecting the data, then said it had captured only fragments of people’s online communications. In October 2010 it admitted for the first time it had collected and stored entire emails, text messages and passwords. Google maintains that the data collection was inadvertent and that it stopped collecting the data as soon as it found out.

A Google engineer who wrote the Street View code used to collect the data invoked his constitutional right not to testify, leaving “significant factual questions” unanswered, the FCC said. Google also took the position that searching its employees’ email would be “a time-consuming and burdensome task,” the FCC report said.

In October 2010, the Federal Trade Commission ended its investigation of Street View after Google pledged to improve safeguards. Last year, Google agreed to 20 years of independent privacy audits to settle FTC claims that it had deceived users and violated its own privacy policies when it launched the Buzz social network.

Google still faces Street View investigations in Europe. Last year, the French Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertes levied a 100,000-euro fine on Google for collecting personal information while gathering information for its Street View map service.

“I see Street View in terms of Google’s long-standing work to expand location data gathering and targeting, so I never thought it was a mistake, just part of the overall direction of company,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

Google, which makes billions of dollars selling online ads, is in a heated battle with social networking giant Facebook Inc., which is on the verge of an initial public offering.

Google has come under heavy scrutiny for how it uses data in other cases. The FTC is looking into whether the company deceived millions of consumers by bypassing their privacy settings on Apple’s Safari Web browser and putting tracking cookies on their computers and gadgets.

jessica.guynn@latimes.com

jim.puzzanghera@latimes.com

Guynn reported from San Francisco and Puzzanghera from Washington.


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