US lawmakers disturbed over Google's Wi-Fi snooping

Three U.S. congressmen who asked Google to explain why and how it collected data being transmitted over Wi-Fi networks from its Street View cameras were not placated by the search giant’s response.

Representative Henry Waxman of California, Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Representative Joe Barton of Texas on Friday posted Google’s response to their queries online and said they continue to be concerned about the activity.

“Google now confesses it has been collecting people’s information for years, yet claims they still do not know exactly what they collected and who was vulnerable. This is deeply troubling for a company that bases its business model on gathering consumer data,” Barton said. “That failure is even more disturbing and ironic in view of the fact that Google is lobbying the government to regulate Internet service providers, but not Google.”

Google recently disclosed that it had been collecting information sent over unsecured Wi-Fi networks while collecting images with its Street View cars. Google uses such cars to take the photos that make up Street View, a service that overlays images on maps.

Google hasn’t analyzed the information it collected from the Wi-Fi networks so it doesn’t know what data it has, the company said in response to the questions from the congressmen. “It is possible that the payload data may have included personal data if a user at the moment of collection broadcast such information,” Google wrote.

Because it doesn’t know what it has, it also can’t say how many people may have been affected. “Moreover, we have not conducted an analysis of the payload data in a way that enables us to know exactly what was collected. We therefore cannot determine the number of individuals affected by the payload data collection,” Google wrote.

The data was never used in any product or service and was only viewed twice, the company said. The engineer who designed the software viewed it and the company also looked at it when it became aware that the data was being collected, it said. Google has since removed the data from its network so it is accessible only to people responsible for securing the data.

Even if the Street View cars collected sensitive data, it would be difficult to decipher. The data was stored in aggregate, binary form, Google said.

The company also said that it has decided to stop collecting any Wi-Fi data at all from Street View cars. It had been collecting other information that could help in determining precise locations.

Google was unable to answer a few other questions that the congressmen asked. For instance, it couldn’t describe the frequency with which the cars drove streets. It also couldn’t say how many Wi-Fi networks it collected data from.

Google seemed to try to distance itself from responsibility for the data collection practice. “As we have noted, neither Google’s management nor any Google product group requested that the payload data be collected, and Google never used the payload data in any of its products or services,” it said. Google has said that the code was written by an engineer as an experiment and mistakenly included in the final Street View cars.

It also said that it believes it’s lawful to collect data transmitted over unsecured networks. “We emphasize that being lawful and being the right thing to do are two different things, and that collecting payload data was a mistake for which we are profoundly sorry,” it said.

Google faces lawsuits and investigations over the issue in the U.S., Canada, France and Germany.

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