The Federal Trade Commission informed Google today that it has dropped its investigation into what the Internet giant has described as the mistaken collection of information from unsecured Wi-Fi networks.
In a letter to Albert Gidari, Google’s outside counsel, David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s consumer protection bureau, said the agency was dropping its probe given the actions Google has taken to improve its internal processes.
Those include appointing a director of privacy and product management, implementing “core” privacy training for key employees, and incorporating a privacy review process into product design. Vladeck also noted that Google has pledged to delete the data it collected “as soon as possible.”
“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. This assurance is critical to mitigate the potential harm to consumers from the collection of payload data,” Vladeck wrote. “Because of these commitments, we are ending our inquiry into this matter at this time.”
Last spring, Google revealed that its Street View cars, which take street-level photos for Google’s mapping service, had mistakenly collected personal information from unsecured Wi-Fi networks in the United States and other countries. Some European and Canadian privacy officials say the incidents violated their privacy laws. Several U.S. state attorneys general also are investigating the Wi-Fi snooping.
Google has maintained that the collection was a mistake but acknowledged Friday that it had collected personal information from the unsecured Wi-Fi networks, including entire e-mails and passwords.
“We want to delete this data as soon as possible, and I would like to apologize again for the fact that we collected it in the first place,” said Google's senior vice president for engineering and research, Alan Eustace, in a blog post. “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.”
A Google spokeswoman said today, "We welcome the news that the FTC has closed its inquiry and recognized the steps we have taken to improve our internal controls. As we've said before and as we've assured the FTC, we did not want and have never used the payload data in any of our products or services."
Privacy advocates expressed disappointment with the FTC’s decision.
“The commission never conducted an investigation. Never examined the data Google collected. Never considered whether Google violated any laws,” Electronic Privacy Information Center President Marc Rotenberg said. The FTC “never even acknowledged what other agencies previously determined -- that Google secretly gathered e-mail, passwords, personal medical information, and data about millions of private residential Wi-Fi routers. And all that after Congress specifically asked the [FTC] chairman to look into the matter. Certainly, a low point in the history of the commission."
Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, questioned the influence Google has over the Obama administration. Google CEO Eric Schmidt is close to the president, and several Google officials now work for the administration. The FTC under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama “keeps giving Google a free pass to collect” information about consumers, Chester said.
This article appears in the October 27, 2010 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.