FCC investigates Google Street View data gathering

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), which had asked the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) earlier this year to launch a probe into this, welcomed that Google is under investigation by the FCC to determine whether it violated federal eavesdropping laws by inadvertently harvesting data from unencrypted wireless networks it was gathering images for its Street View service.

In a May 18, 2010 letter to the commission, EPIC’s executive director, Marc Rotenberg, expressed concern that Google’s actions may have violated the federal Wiretap Act as well as Section 705 of the Communications Act, which forbids the interception of radio communications without authorization.

Time will have to tell if this investigation will result in more than a mere slap on the wrist for Google, which is what the Federal Trade Commission FTC was ultimately satisfied with when requiring Google to promise to delete the data it had collected and to improve its privacy training.

For capturing location information of wireless networks, no matter whether they are encrypted or not, it would have been sufficient to simply record the SSID (service set identifier). Given massive difference in data storage space requirements of storing an SSID of up to 32 Bytes length vs. storing a multitude of payload data that may include user names and passwords transmitted while the Google Street View car was within reach of any given wireless network, it stands to reason that this should have raised an internal red flag sooner rather than later.

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