More Trouble From Google's Wi-Spy Snafu: DOJ, Congress Calls For Inquiries

The advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center is asking the Department of Justice to investigate whether Google's Wi-Spy snafu violated any federal laws.

"Over a three-year period, Google, Inc., deployed hundreds of cars on roadways across the United States, outfitted with digital cameras and Wi-Fi receivers, to capture both images available from public roadways and the private communications of Internet users," EPIC says in a letter to DOJ dated Tuesday. "Google's 'Street View' program has given rise to numerous investigations, and lawsuits, but none have adequately determined whether Google's conduct violated the federal Wiretap Act."

If the DOJ takes up the matter, it will become the third federal agency to look into whether Google's Street View cars broke any laws by collecting payload data -- including URLs of sites visited, email and passwords -- from WiFi networks that lacked passwords. Google apologized and said the data collection was a mistake. Still, the revelations sparked a class-action lawsuit and probes in the U.S. and abroad.

So far, however, none of the U.S. actions have amounted to much. The Federal Trade Commission closed an investigation in 2010 without commencing an enforcement proceeding. The Federal Communications Commission also closed its file on Friday. While that agency fined Google $25,000 for impeding the investigation, it didn't rule that any laws were violated.

One reason why the FCC didn't condemn Google more forcefully is because no one seems to know how to apply the wiretap law to WiFi networks. The federal wiretap law, which dates to 1986, prohibits companies from intercepting electronic communications. But it doesn't apply to transmissions accessible to the general public.

Google argues that communications sent through open WiFi networks are publicly accessible. Therefore, the company says, its inadvertent data collection was legal.

U.S. District Court Judge James Ware -- who is presiding over the class-action lawsuit -- disagreed with Google. But Ware also granted Google's request to send that question to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is currently considering the matter.

Meanwhile, the public relations fallout for Google might not end any time soon. Today, Ed Markey (D-Mass.) called for Congress to investigate the company. "The circumstances surrounding Google’s surreptitious siphoning of personal information leave many unanswered questions," he said in a statement. "I believe Congress should immediately hold a hearing to get to the bottom of this serious situation.” 

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