Google Wi-Spy FCC Report Revealed

Following up on a previous blog post, Google has released an FCC report detailing the Street View Probe controversy that has been plaguing the Search giant in what has been dubbed the "Wi-Spy scandal." The report details the FCC’s findings into the investigation of the collection and storage of data by Google from millions of households across the US while operating specially equipped cars for its street view service.

Google Privacy

The initially released report has many redacted blackouts after arguing with the FCC over what details could be releases to the public. An updated release only black outs the names of individuals and raises many new questions about how Google captured personal data for over two years. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has filed two requests to obtain an un-retracted version of the FCC’s report with the Justice Department.

Google stated previously the cars were attempting to record Wi-Fi hotspots and wireless activity and that any collection of personal data was “inadvertent.” The code was written in 2006 and provided a snapshot of online activity as the Google cars drove by when utilized in 2008 and continued until 2010. This practice was dubbed “wardriving” and its disclosure caused a large uproar in the US and Europe.

"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."

What the FCC and millions of Americans want to know is whether the engineers and managers of the Street View project knew that data was being collected or if not, why didn’t they know? Following is a breakdown of the investigations highlights:

  • According to the report, the engineer in question did speak to two other engineers and a senior project manager regarding the data collection.
  • The engineer also submitted a copy of the document to the entire Street View team in October 2006 in which stated that Google would be collecting this data.
  • Those working on Street View told the FCC they had no knowledge that payload data was being collected.
  • Managers of the Street View program said they did not read the 2006 document.
  • A different engineer says he remembered receiving the document but did not recall any reference to the collection of data.
  • Another engineer while debugging the code did notice the software was designed to capture data.
  • A senior manager said he preapproved the document before it was written.
  • Street View team members told investigators that engineers on the project were permitted to modify the code without approval from managers.
  • The FCC accuses Google of withholding an email discussing the engineer’s review of the payload data with a senior manager of the Street View project.
  • Google maintains that it did not authorize the collection of personal data.
  • Google denies that it stonewalled the investigation and that any delays were caused by 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."

  • Google first denied it collected the data.
  • Google then stated that they were only collecting "fragments of data"
  • Google admits that it had intercepted emails, passwords, search history and apologizes.
  • Google temporarily grounds Street View car fleet.
  • Google appoints a director of privacy to oversee project, trains employees in “responsible collection and handling of data” and incorporates more stringent privacy safeguards.
  • FCC begins its investigation in October 2010 as the FTC completes its inquiry.
  • Justice Department investigated and closed its inquiry in May 2011.
  • The engineer in question in the report was involved with Street View as a side project and stated that he was interested in collecting data from unencrypted wireless networks to determine if it could be used in other Google products or services.
  • The engineer dismissed privacy concerns stating that vehicles would not be in the proximity of "any given user for an extended period of time." He did have a note in which stated that he should discuss the matter further with a product council.
  • The report does state that the data was reviewed by the engineer to identify frequently visited website to determine how much people were using Google search but states that it was not pursued due to being told that the data had no value.

The FCC has debated whether Google’s actions violated the US wiretapping laws and considered charging Google with a violation of the Communications Act but stated that there was no legal precedent to do so as Wi-Fi technology did not exist when the Act was established. The FCC states that they still have "significant factual questions" as to why the data was ever collected.

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