US regulators slap Google on wrist over Wi-Spy incidents

NEW YORK: The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is scolding Google Inc without punishing the Internet search leader for collecting e-mail messages, passwords and other personal information transmitted over unsecured wireless networks.

In a two-page letter released yesterday, the regulatory agency expressed its displeasure with Google for allowing potentially sensitive information to be scooped up for several years before management realised it.

It took an inquiry from German regulators earlier this year for Google to realise it had been inadvertently pulling and storing information from wireless networks as its cars took photos of neighbourhoods around the world for its “Street View” mapping service.

The activity outraged some privacy watchdogs who believed Google’s activity may have violated laws against unauthorised wiretapping. It also triggered the attention of legal authorities in several of the more than 30 countries where Google’s cars were snooping through WiFi networks.

Although Google apologised for intruding, it has steadfastly insisted that it didn’t break any laws because it got the data from WiFi systems that should have been protected with passwords.

That lack of security left the networks open to anyone passing by with the right equipment. Google’s Street View cars no longer are equipped to detect WiFi networks.

The FTC said it closed its investigation without any further action against Google because it’s satisfied with a series of measures that the company announced last week in an effort to improve its internal privacy controls.

Consumer Watchdog, a group that has been among the most strident critics of Google’s so-called “Wi-Spy” incident, called FTC’s resolution “premature and wrong.”

It also suggested that Google’s lobbyists may have swayed the outcome of the inquiry. The company has spent US$3.9mil (RM12.5mil) on lobbying activities so far this year and has met with the FTC on variety of topics, according to company disclosures.

“At a minimum, the public deserved a full report about Google’s abuses from the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection,” said John Simpson, who oversees a Consumer Watchdog project monitoring Google.

In a statement, Google said it welcomed the FTC’s findings.

The company’s collection of WiFi information remains under investigation in the United States by a coalition of state attorneys-general.

Italy on Wednesday became the latest of several countries outside the United States to open investigations into whether Google’s surveillance of WiFi systems broke its laws.

Google said it gathered about 600GB of data — enough to fill about six floors of an academic library — and wants to delete all the information as soon as it’s cleared in all the affected countries. So far, it has only purged the information it picked up in Ireland, Denmark, Austria and Hong Kong. — AP

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