Despite waffling by federal regulators, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are renewing scrutiny of Google's Street View program, which for several years collected private wireless communications.
The latest round of attention comes after the Federal Communications Commission fined Google for not cooperating but declined to rule that the tech giant had broken any laws.
"Google needs to fully explain to Congress and the public what it knew about the collection of data through its Street View program, why it impeded the FCC investigation, and what it is doing to ensure appropriate privacy safeguards are in place to protect consumers' personal information," Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass said in statement.
Google, which is facing a separate antitrust probe by the Federal Trade Commission into the dominance of its search engine, uses data about wireless networks to make its map services more accurate. What upset critics in the Street View case was that, in addition to taking pictures of streets and collecting basic Wi-Fi information, Google gathered private information.
The FCC report found that the project's lone engineer, referred to as "Engineer Doe" in government documents but identified by The New York Times as Marius Milner, shared his intentions with other employees but didn't discuss the privacy implications with company attorneys--and that Google's supervision of the project was minimal. However, the FCC joined the Justice Department and the FTC in determining that despite having collected personal information for two years, the Google program did not break any U.S. laws.
That hasn't pleased privacy advocates who say Google clearly broke wiretap laws. The Electronic Privacy Information Center, for example, says regulators haven't done enough to enforce current privacy laws. Lawmakers, meanwhile, say the inconclusive FCC report may raise more questions than it answers.
Markey called for hearings on the program, and Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., said Google officials, whose claims contradict some of the FCC's findings, need to come clean.
"Companies like yours - which are entrusted with very sensitive online data about our private lives - have a responsibility to honor the public's trust by being transparent with consumers and forthcoming with investigators when addressing privacy breach inquiries," Barrow wrote in a letter to Google on Thursday.
When the Google Street View case first surfaced in 2010, then-Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal joined other officials in pressing Google to turn over information about the program. Now a Democratic member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Blumenthal says that while it's debatable whether the company violated any laws, it's clear that action is required. "The issue is way bigger than Google," he said in an interview. "There is an urgent, immediate need for updated laws."
Blumenthal said he will press for a review of existing wiretap laws, but with little consensus, many competing interests, and the current skepticism on Capitol Hill toward legislation that constricts the free flow of information on the Web, it's highly unlikely that privacy legislation will move any time soon.