Watchdog group wants federal investigation of Google Street View flap

A prominent civil liberties watchdog has added its voice to those calling for a federal investigation of Google following the company's recent admission of privacy violations related to its "Street View" product.

The nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) sent a letter to Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski last week requesting an investigation of privacy issues arising from "Street View," which provides "360 degree street level imagery" of U.S. cities.

"The company routinely and secretly downloaded user communications data and the company routinely and secretly mapped private communication hotspots. Moreover, they said not a word about the Wi-Fi data collection during the three-year privacy debate over Street View," wrote Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC. "This is why the FCC must undertake an investigation."

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Google admitted earlier this month that while compiling images and data for the service it inadvertently collected e-mails and documents transmitted over local wireless networks. It has since deleted the data and apologized for the lapse.

According to Rotenberg, Google launched Street View in May 2007 using images taken by digital cameras affixed to company vehicles. Google initially defended itself from privacy concerns by arguing it was only collecting images visible to anyone walking down a public street. The service soon spread to 30 other countries, with the company also using a large tricycle and snowmobile to collect images.

"But the reality of Street View was very different. Google has now admitted that Google Street View vehicles have been capturing communications data for years [Emphasis Rotenberg]. Google never disclosed this activity," Rotenberg writes, adding that it was only through an audit demanded by German authorities that Google's Wi-Fi spying was ever exposed.

"Whatever Internet traffic that was taking place on a given network as the Street View vehicle drove past was captured and stored by Google. None of Google's Wi-Fi activity was made known to the public or presumably to the Commission until the recent investigation undertaken by European privacy officials."

Rotenberg also argues that Google's capture of the data could easily constitute a violation of the 1968 Wiretap Act, which allows civil and criminal penalties for any individuals that intentionally intercept electronic communications. Penalties could include fines of up to $50,000 and up to two years in prison for a first offense.

"By intercepting and recording unencrypted Wi-Fi transmissions, it is very likely that Google violated the federal Wiretap Act," Rotenberg writes.

"Google CEO Eric Schmidt was recently quoted as saying 'no harm, no foul'. Of course, it is not necessary to show 'harm' to prove an unlawful intercept. It is the intercept itself that is the violation. This is particularly important when the representation about hard is made by the party that engage in the illegal activity."

Reps. Edward MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyDems blast EPA nominee at confirmation hearing Overnight Energy: Watchdog investigating EPA enforcement numbers | EPA's Wheeler faces Senate grilling | Interior's offshore drilling staff returning to work during shutdown EPA's Wheeler faces grilling over rule rollbacks MORE (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) sent a letter to the FTC earlier in May expressing concern about the issue but stopped short of demanding an investigation.