Exclusive: Google releases FCC report on Street View probe

Share via

SAN FRANCISCO -- Google has released the full report of the Federal Communications Commission’s investigation into the data it collected and stored from millions of unknowing households across the nation while operating specially equipped cars for its Street View service.

The search giant released the report, which had had heavily redacted passages, after wrangling with the FCC over which details could be publicly revealed. The report now blacks out only the names of individuals. It reveals new details and raises new questions about how Google captured personal information over a two-year period. Google has said that it was mapping wireless networks but that collecting personal data was “inadvertent.”

The report points the finger at a rogue engineer who, it says, intentionally wrote software code that captured payload data information -- communication over the Internet including emails, passwords and search history -- from unprotected wireless networks, going beyond what Google says it intended. The engineer invoked his 5th Amendment right and declined to speak to the FCC.

But the FCC raises the question of whether engineers and managers on the Street View project did know -- or should have known -- that the data was being collected.

According to the FCC report: The engineer in question told two other engineers, including a senior manager, that he was collecting the payload data. He also gave the entire Street View team a copy of a document in October 2006 that detailed his work on Street View. In it, he noted that Google would be logging such data.

Those working on Street View told the FCC they had no knowledge that the payload data was being collected. Managers of the Street View program said they did not read the October 2006 document. An different engineer remembered receiving the document but did not recall any reference to the collection of payload data. An engineer who worked closely with the engineer in question on the project in 2007, reviewing all of the codes line by line for bugs, says he did not notice that the software was designed to capture payload data. A senior manager said he preapproved the document before it was written.

The FCC also accuses Google of withholding an email that openly discussed the engineer’s review of payload data with a senior manager on the Street view project.

Google maintains that it did not authorize the gathering of personal information. The FCC concluded in its report that collecting the data was not illegal, but it slapped Google with a fine of $25,000 for obstructing its investigation. Google denies that it stonewalled investigators. It blamed any delays on the FCC.

“We decided to voluntarily make the entire document available except for the names of individuals,” Google spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said in an emailed statement. “While we disagree with some of the statements made in the document, we agree with the FCC’s conclusion that we did not break the law. We hope that we can now put this matter behind us.”

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, which had filed a public records request to obtain an unredacted version of the report, has filed another such request with the Justice Department to get details of its investigation.

“We look forward to reviewing the complete FCC report,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Washington privacy watchdog group.

The Google engineer wrote the code in 2006. It provided a snapshot of what people were doing online when the Street View cars drove by. Google started collecting the data in 2008 while mapping wireless networks, a practice it dubbed “wardriving.” It continued to collect the data until April 2010. The disclosure caused an uproar in the United States and Europe.

Google at first denied it collected the data. Then it said it collected only fragments of data. Then it admitted it had sucked up entire emails, passwords and search history, and it apologized. Google says it took steps. It temporarily grounded its fleet of Street View cars. It also appointed a director of privacy to oversee engineering and product management, it trained employees on the “responsible collection, use and handling of data” and it put into place more stringent privacy safeguards for projects.

The FCC opened its investigation in October 2010 as the Federal Trade Commission closed its inquiry. Google said this week that the Justice Department also investigated, and closed its inquiry in May 2011.

The FCC debated whether Google had violated the nation’s wiretapping laws and considered charging Google with a violation of the Communications Act but concluded there was no legal precedent; the Wi-Fi technology did not exist when the act was written.

But the FCC said it still had “significant factual questions” about why the data was collected.

According to the report, the engineer in question was not a full-time engineer on the team, but was working on Street View as a side project. He was interested in collecting data from unencrypted wireless networks to see if it could be used in Google’s other products and services.

Members of the Street View team told investigators that engineers working on the project were permitted to modify the software code without getting approval from project managers.

According to the report: The engineer in question considered privacy concerns but dismissed them because the vehicles would not be in proximity of “any given user for an extended period of time” and none of the data gathered would be presented to users of Google services in raw form. He did note as a “to do” item that he should discuss the matter with a product counsel.

On at least one occasion, the report says, the engineer reviewed the data to identify frequently visited websites. He thought it might be helpful in determining how much people were using Google search, so he asked a member of Google’s search quality team who told him “it had no use or value,” the report says. When he determined it had no value, he abandoned the idea.

Google has declined to identify the engineer.


FTC ramps up its probe of Google

Silicon Valley finding Washington regulators uncomfortably close

Google says it did not impede Street View probe; DOJ probe done